A Sense of Place

Stretching your arms across the river

You held the weight of the steel workers

The foundaries are now dead and buried

Yet The Transporter Bridge does not shirk its responsibilities.

 

A star of film, myth and legend

A survivor of blitzkrieg bombs

Clawing back a little of our heritage

The Transporter Bridge brings life.

 

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Walking up the bare bones of disused docks

I stride under the Temenos structure

Bisecting shopping streets and the Dinosaur Park

The land beneath us fractures with new life.

 

A painting by a gold standard Olympian

A view from the university

Muslim, Christian, Chinese, British

Time, like the river, flows freely bridged by steel.

 

This is a rough draft of a poem for Frosham’s arts festival.

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Faithful

He was hiding, the coward. He was hiding in the well instead of going out to fight. But what could a ten year old do?

He would be found, he knew that. They would be thorough, making sure that each and every male was dead.

All that wasted time. All those stupid games played with friends. All those stupid English lessons whilst all the other boys had been outside playing games. He could have been out there, travelling the world, but instead he was indoors, in tightly controlled classrooms, learning the difference between “a” and “an”, and how to write “thought” and “through”.

Now that the Hutus were here, none of that seemed relevant. He was about to die, and that would be that.

Two hours later, he pulled himself up the rope. Clinging with his knees, toes and hands, he pulled himself up to the ground. The Hutus had gone. They had left a scene of brutal inhumanity.

Across the terracotta earth, brown, strong bodies had been left in the position they had died in. The boy approached a pair of legs – the left leg down, the right leg frozen where it had been pushed up, the patterned lilac skirt stained. The boy stumbled around the open land, his wide eyes taking in dead body after dead body, staring over his shoulder at each before he encountered the next. The raw pain in his hands numbing his heart until he went into one house – Jean-Pierre’s house.

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There was no smell. It was too soon. No flies either. It was not like in the films. The men were simply dead. Their bodies lay where each had been cut down with samurai swords. The fallen had just fallen, their blood now tacky and brown on the terracotta floor tiles. All the books, albums and wall hangings were still in place. There had been no pillaging, nor a James Bondesque villain flicking through a copy of Taming The Shrew. The murderers had done their job and left. This was not like the films. This was not like the films.

Maman and Papa!

Where are they?

This is part of a true story. I met Faithful when he was 18. 

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Andrew’s Bedsit 3

‘What people?’ Andrew shouted. ‘I’ve kept my head down. No one’s after me!’

‘I’m sorry Andrew,’ the officer said. He pointed to Sophie who was being put into the back of the police van. ‘She’s betrayed you.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Andrew cried out. ‘She’s my girlfriend. We’ve been together non-stop for three weeks.’

‘She sold you.’

The officer’s words cut across the air like a sword.

Andrew’s voice was almost too quiet for him to hear himself say, ‘What?’

‘Sophie – or Kelly Sanderson as we know her – traffiks people for gangs to sell and buy. Particularly among the homeless. Modern day slavery.’

‘But she’s my girlfriend,’ Andrew said. ‘She was abused. She was abused by a gang -‘

‘Now she’s too old for what they want, she has to find them new victims or people to sell.’  The officer put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder. ‘They would have murdered her if she didn’t. Kelly arranged for the gang to pick you up outside of St Theresa’s church today. Has she tried to get you to go to St Theresa’s today?’

‘She said there was hotpot.’

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‘Hotpot’s tomorrow,’ the officer said. ‘You were going to be sold to a family who do off the books building work.’

‘I was a builder,’ Andrew said quietly.

‘Looks like we got to you just in time,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve got some of the gang in custody. We need you to come and make a statement and then we’ll put you into protective custody. You’ll get a bedsit. No one will hassle you. Not like in a hostel where the smackheads bang on your door day and night.’

‘A place of my own?’ Andrew asked with tears streaming down his face.

‘There are some days that make doing this job worthwhile,’ the officer said. ‘Not many days but some.’

‘Could I get a job?’ Andrew asked. ‘While I live in the police bedsit?’

‘Andrew, we know you’re no criminal or addict. That’s one of the reasons you’re getting this bedsit. We’ll give you a floating support worker to help you with your transition off the streets. Does that sound OK?’

‘It’s all going to be OK,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s all going to work out.’

It was then that Andrew realised that it was no longer raining. His trainers were still wet, but his feet were protected by the plastic bags tied at his ankles. Cars splashed water as their drivers headed for the shops, and hedges and trees flickered as birds came out from their shelters. Voices chattered over the police radio and a dog barked in the distance. Life was carrying on.

 

Homelessness in the UK has shot up. Traffiking and the modern slave trade are now a normal part of life in most English towns and cities. Sex traffiking of children happens in every town and city in the UK. Police numbers have fallen by around 21000 across the UK. Many police officers no longer have the time or the energy to be as humane as the officers in this story. I am harkening back to a time when police officers did their jobs and did their jobs with gentleness and compassion towards victims. We now have citizen groups patrolling areas to keep people safe. I’m not sure how far the elastic is going to stretch before it snaps.

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Andrew’s Bedsit 2

‘That time there, the landlord was selling up, so I had to move out,’ Andrew said. ‘So I was in this hostel, but you can’t work and stay there cos then you’d have to pay the staff’s wages and everything, so I found myself another bedsit, and I finished my training, and I got a job with an OK company, and I was stupid. I’d never had proper wages before or money, and I blew it all. I was going out, getting wasted all the time. I bought a load of video games, the big TV – everything.’ He put his head in his hands. ‘Then the 2008 crash happened. I was sacked two months later. No one was building houses anymore. I tried looking for another job, and I got bits and boba for a while, but it all dried up. There was just nothing.’

‘You lost everything.’

‘I don’t know why I haven’t topped meself,’ Andrew said. ‘I’m not looking for pit or owt. I just don’t see any future.’

‘Would you go back to being a builder?’ Sophie asked him.

‘Goes without saying,’ Andrew replied. ‘If there was a job for me, I’d start tomorrow.’

‘And have a roof over your head and be warm and dry.’

‘I don’t want to think about that just now,’ Andrew said. ‘It’s chucking it down and I’m freezing. I don’t want to think about it being warm and dry. I just want to get through the next few hours.’

‘We should go to St Theresa’s,’ Sophie said.

Andrew didn’t move. ‘What do you want to be?’

‘Me?’ Sophie seemed taken aback to have been asked this. ‘What do I want to be? I don’t… I don’t know. Maybe a hairdresser? That’d be good; chatting all day and doing hair. That’d be nice.’

‘I reckon we should wait another ten minutes, see if the rain stops and -‘ Andrew stopped. The sound of a car’s engine alerted him to danger. ‘Oh no.’ Andrew put his arms around Sophie. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll look after you.’

But Sophie could not be comforted by this. ‘You’re in no shape for a scrap.’

Andrew got up. He had to protect her. ‘Stay there. I’ll go and see -‘

Andrew didn’t have to look for who the car belonged to. A police officer came striding towards them. Andrew shouted to Sophie,

‘It’s ok. It’s The Busies.’

But Sophie ran. She threw aside the blanket and ran. The officer ran after her, calling Sophie “Little Bitch” and other similar names. Andrew ran after them. Sophie, the officer and Andrew ran through the clump of bushes behind the last warehouse and onto the smooth tarmac of the pavement alongside the new dual carriageway that led to the out of town shopping area. The police officer was panting heavily and fell back. Andrew overtook him and he ran towards his girlfriend.

Suddenly, a police van pulled up in front of Sophie, cutting her off, and the driver jumped out from the van and wrestled Sophie to the ground. Sophie was screaming and struggling.

‘Stop it!’ Andrew yelled at the officer as he ran up to them. ‘She’s been abused. Get off her.’ He went to rescue Sophie by grabbing hold of the officer’s stab-proof vest, but the panting officer behind him easily lifted Andrew off his colleague. Andrew tried to fight him but he had no strength left.

‘Andrew Harding?’ The officer addressed him.

‘I haven’t done anything!’ Andrew glanced over his shoulder to see his girlfriend being handcuffed. ‘And she hasn’t done anything either!’

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‘Andrew, I need to talk to you,’ the officer said. ‘You’re not in any trouble. I just need you to come with me for your own safety.’

‘I can take care of myself,’ Andrew replied.

‘Andrew,’ the officer said with an edge to his voice. ‘Come with me or I’ll have to arrest you to take you into protective custody. You choose, but we have to get you off the streets. People are looking for you.’

 

This is the second part of the story. The third part will be posted in two days’ time.

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Andrew’s Bedsit

They had never loved anyone before. Andrew and Sophie huddled together with donated blankets around them as they sat side by side in the deep doorway of a disused factory. Everything was disused here. Many years ago, this area had been a thriving business estate, with lorries bringing in goods and taking other products away for national distribution. This very road had been the heart of all the operations, yet now the concrete road was cracked and weeds grew up through it all, and the factories were closed off from the world with green steel shutters; the face of modern Britain.

The spiteful February rain did not let up. Andrew and Sophie were careful to not let the cardboard get wet. They sat and laid on it for insulation from the harsh, man-made stone, although recently they hadn’t laid down much. The squats inside buildings were full of drug paraphenalia such as used needles, uncapped and unsafe, and so there was nowhere to lie down in the rainy, wintery weather. Just doorways that leaked. Andrew had suggested that they put the plastic bags from the foodbank inside their trainers and tie them around their ankles so that they didn’t develop trenchfoot. Andrew tried to not be too graphic when he described his past experience with trenchfoot, when his feet had turned white and the skin of the soles of his feet hung off in strips. He didn’t want Sophie to think he was even mkre disgusting than he already was. He was thankful that Sophie didn’t want sex or kissing. Just a hug. Like most homeless women, Sophie’s childhood had been one of penises and forced kisses and “parties”.

Sophie had run away from home time after time, and so she had been put into the “care system” where the men had even more access to her. When Sophie had gone missing, no one cared. Her mother managed to stay sober for long enough to make a television appeal, but after two weeks all that was a distant memory – a small cloud among many hazey clouds conjured up by cheap chemical cider. Sophie huddled close to Andrew, a boney old man at the age of thirty-six.

‘I hope the rain stops soon,’ she said. ‘There’s that St Theresa’s doing hotpot today until two o’clock. I used to love hotpot.’

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‘With red cabbage,’ Andrew added. ‘The churches used to do hotpot all the time before buffets came into fashion. I was all up for some proper scran, I got to the church – St Duncan’s I think it were – and there was this big table of sausage rolls and crisps and quiche. I mean, that’s not going to fill anyone!’

Sophie frowned. ‘That must’ve been ages back. Were you homeless back then?’

‘Nah,’ Andrew said, smiling as he thought back to his previous life. ‘I had a bedsit and I was on an ET scheme. YTS – you know – earn on the job?’

‘Never heard of it,’ Sophie said.

‘It was before your time,’ Andrew replied. ‘So I was training to be a brickie, and it was OK. Got paid fifty quid a week, which wasn’t like being paid fifty quid is now. Back then, things were cheaper. So I had a job and some money coming in and I went to the churches for money.’

‘What happened?’ Sophie asked.

I started writing this story from a couple of prompts. I am using some of what I have seen lately and combining it with my work with street homeless people. Yes, two weeks ago I saw a man with carrier bags in his trainers to keep his feet dry. He couldn”t afford new shoes. The modern face of Britain.

The rest of this story will be posted in a couple of days’ time.

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Doris 2

‘Do you perceive any difficulties with the novel?’

Doris corrected her spectacles again. ‘It’s set in an English city about which most people around the world have never heard.’ Doris stirred the boiling pan of baby potatoes. ‘People know London, Manchester, Edinburgh even. Not Stoke-on-Trent.’

‘I thought setting it in Stoke could be what makes it unique.’

Doris didn’t answer. Instead, she touched her faux pearl necklace and asked, ‘Am I allowed to know who will be joining us this evening?’

‘Doris! You know I’ve been seeing Heather for a few weeks.’

‘Yes.’

‘So it is Heather who will be joining us tonight.’

Doris seemed to sniff. ‘I shall prepare the table.’

Doris went to trundle past me, but I caught her arm. ‘Doris, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing is wrong Miss Hazel,’ Doris replied. ‘Everything is wonderful. Your novel is nearly finished, Miss Heather will surely move in and I am sure that you will find me a good home.’

Doris moved into the dining area and took a table cloth from its drawer. I watched as Doris began to lay the table.

‘Doris, why do you think I’ll find you a new home?’

‘I do not think Miss Hazel,’ Doris replied. ‘I am incapable of thinking. It is simply logical that when you move Miss Heather in, you will move me out. And you will have children of your own and they will take up your time. There will be no room for an old dinosaur like me.’

‘Doris, have you been reading Mrs Doubtfire again?’

‘It is a good story.’

‘Crikey Doris!’ I wanted to run up to her and take hold of her, so that is what I did. My hands took hold of Doris’ cuboid arms. ‘Doris, I’m not getting rid of you. Even if Heather moves in and we have kids, I am not getting rid of you.’

I was sure Doris’ square face brightened. ‘Really, Miss Hazel? Are you really going to keep me?’

‘Of course I’m going to keep you!’ I actually put my arms around Doris and hugged her. ‘What would I do without you? Who else is going to put my apostrophes in the right place and decifer my handwriting and give me honest opinions?’

Doris’ rod-like fingers touched my back. Doris was hugging me back. ‘Really, Miss Hazel?’

I laid my head on Doris’ firm shoulder. ‘And if Heather and I have kids, they will need a nanny.’

‘A nanny?’ Doris whispered. ‘Me?’

‘Who else would I trust?’ I squeezed Doris tighter and then stepped back. ‘But do me one favour. Stop reading Mrs Doubtfire.’

‘That’s a deal.’

Our felicitations were only disturbed by a knock on the door. Doris, ever the dutiful AI, went to answer the door while I smoothed down my unruly hair in front of the mirror. I heard the front door open and Doris said,

‘Good evening Miss Heather. I’m very pleased to meet you.’

 

The second half of a rough outline of a story.

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Doris

‘Evening Doris!’  I closed the door with my foot as I struggled in the hallway with four bags of shopping. Within two seconds Doris was there, ready to help, glinting cuboid arms and rod-like finger outstretched.

‘Good evening Miss Hazel.’  Doris tweaked her blue spectacles in place on her square metal face. ‘May I help you?’

I stepped forward and hooked the shopping bags ontoDoris’ steely fingers and pulled off my woollen hat. ‘Doris, I told you to knock off your formal speech settings.’

The robot stared back at me. ‘Yes Miss Hazel, but I wish to always give you the respect due to you.’

I unwrapped myself from my thick, padded outer coat, hung it on the stair bannister, then unzipped my inner jacket and left it on top of its larger companion. I could hear water bubbling. Looking around the corner of the dining room I could see straight into the kitchen where Doris was busying herself putting food items away in the refrigerator or cupboard. I’d had two AI units before I bought Doris at a car boot sale. As soon as I saw her curly grey wig and waspish blue spectacles I knew Doris was the right AI for me. She’d almost seemed grateful when I had presented her with a skirt, blouse and matching cardigan along with a faux pearl necklace. She said her previous owner hadn’t provided her with clothes. He had insisted that Doris was a machine and if his washing machine didn’t get to keep a stray sock, he wasn’t about to start dressing his AI. I could understand his point to a degree, but my conscience wouldn’t let Doris go about the house naked. I’d given her a name and she was so polite to me that I just could not deny her clothes. It just didn’t feel dignified.

And now she had dinner on the boil. If I didn’t know better, I would think that Doris seemed tense, even nervous.

I stood in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the painted wooden frame. ‘Have you had a nice day Doris?’

‘Miss Hazel, I should be asking you about your day.’ Her head inclined towards me.

‘Doris, I wonder if you can add another fish to the oven tray.’

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Doris looked at me sharply. ‘Are we entertaining?’

‘Yes Doris, ‘ I said. ‘Could you add another fish to the oven tray?’

‘Of course Miss Hazel.’

‘How is the book going Doris?’

‘It’s going well Miss Hazel,’ Doris said stiffly.  ‘Your use of apostrophes leaves a little to be desired and your tenses are all over the place in Chapter Six, but yes, your novel is near completion. By Friday I will be ready to start approaching traditional publishers.’

‘You think my work is good enough for a traditional publisher?’

Doris adjusted her spectacles. ‘Well Miss Hazel, your novel has it all; drama, suspense, some humorous elements and several love scenes, and it is literary in style. It ticks all the boxes.’

‘Why, thank you Doris.’ I was taken aback by her appraisal because AIs could only ever give an honest view. ‘Do you have any concerns about the novel?’

‘Perhaps the love scenes are a little… unexpected for today’s more conservative audience.’

I knew she was right. Thirty years ago, lesbian lead characters were rare but acceptable. I had been born at the wrong time.

This is the first part of a rough draft of a short story I am preparing for an anthology.

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