Fruit & veg, toms, salad, mayo, salmon, ½ loaf … I’ve not yet managed to write a shopping list in Dutch even when the words are shorter (sla) or similar abbreviations (gr & fruit). It’s too much hard work late on a Thursday evening when I’m sitting with a glass of wine (wijn) and contemplating the moving project: flooring, top-down & bottom-up blinds, two chairs – ordered; research on fridge/freezers needed, also a new GP practice and pharmacist.
Here in the Netherlands the distance is important: the GP must be able to get to your home within 10 minutes. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to register. In Scheveningen (where I spent the winter) three practices did not take on new patients or had a four-month’ waiting list. A tomato a day may keep the doctor away …
I am stepping away from my life, my life as short as a haiku. I have turned biographer, am writing vignettes, pale green, the length of celery.
My vignettes may concern elderly mules with dental decay, the struggle to remember maternal aunts. I am numbering my vignettes 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D – narrow seats in the small airplane Aer Lingus would use on the late Saturday flight.
I could write a vignette about the plastic dummies they use in ambulance training. Today I’m going to focus on pretend tomatoes. My invisible friend has started her new diet.
On Tuesday evening my local Stanza poetry group held it first ‘live’ meeting since the start of the pandemic. It was a hybrid session which worked very well: some poets in the station bar of Stalybridge station, some of us at home in the UK and abroad. I was pleased that I could take part. I have also joined the Groningen Stanza here in The Netherlands which alternates live and Zoom meetings.
I saw fresh rhubarb at the supermarket yesterday which reminded me of another group I used to belong to in Manchester. My third poetry book is dedicated to Elaine, Hannah and Jackie; here is a poem written in a back garden in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester.
The laughter swaying across the lettuce, strong knotted rope in the old Bramley tree. A grandmother sits quietly in a wooden chair; she counts knitting patterns in her head.
The dappled shade is a cool alleyway between her life and her daughter’s world. Laughter slides away from them, low down across the grass; it hides between the rhubarb and redcurrant bushes, waiting until night time for the moles to come up and breathe into it. Yesterday’s laughter a small pile of earth.
(published in Another life, Oversteps Books, 2016).
It’s a huge pleasure introducing this month’s guest poet Carl Tomlinson. Carl and I met on a w/end poetry workshop some years ago. He was born in Lancashire – where his father’s family had farmed for 150 years. He now lives in Oxfordshire and is a coach and part-time finance director. His poems have been published in magazines, anthologies and online.
From his debut Changing Places I have chosen one poem that has a personal meaning to me: I was living in Southampton in 1976 and my late husband supported our local team. The other four poems are a moving tribute to Carl’s personal land and heritage. The cover picture was taken by him.
FA Cup Final. 1 May 1976. Southampton 1 – 0 Manchester United
Bobby Stokes made me a Red one Spring day at Wembley. He broke my heart in a moment scuffing that shot past Stepney.
Although I wasn’t football mad you still had to pick a side and a playground full of Saints fans said Man United were mine.
Four years after moving South my accent was still abused. Flattened vowels lurked in my mouth and echoed round the school.
All that week I learned their names eager to share the glory, but sometimes, as the pundits say, the Cup’s a fairy story.
Nil-nil at eighty-three minutes, the telly rings with cheers. Stokes shoots. He scores. Saints win it. This was what I’d feared.
Bobby Stokes made me blush deep red at hymn-time in assembly, For all the saints, the teacher said. Every face was turned on me.
I’d just got my A-levels out of the way and was spending a week with my Aunt in the house her grandfather’d built in the garden behind the farm, in a place that had seemed like forever, aged eight. She said “Derek Fitton wants a hand with his hay.” As kids we had loved helping Grandad, chasing the baler round Tandle Hill’s haunch riding the trailer back to the barn echoing Tarzan calls under the bridge. We lived with the itching and the seeds in our hair because that was the way we were made. It was ten years since the pain of the sale and I wanted to feel like a farmer again. Derek was glad of my help that day. It was fun enough, in a blokeish way. He gave me a fiver. Later, I drank it away. The twine cut my fingers, my back complained the welts sprang up on my arms again. You wouldn’t know, I guess you’ve never baled but it’s a different kind of ache when it’s not your hay.
Coming to grief
We were most of the way to Middleton when I discovered that grief doesn’t always dress in death. One of my parents said that Three Gates Farm – where six generations had tilled the last of Lancashire’s silty soil – was being sold that week.
In the winter of sixty-three my Grandad made the front page phoning for a snowplough because the lane was six foot deep. Now we were in ‘th’Observer’ again in the back of the classifieds along with all the other lots due ‘Under the Marshall hammer.’
Reading the paper emptied my eyes. I realised whatever childish plans I’d made for those fifty acres of gentle land nudged between mill towns and millstone grit were to be knocked down (for twenty-six grand in the end) in Ye Olde Boar’s Head by an auctioneer I never met.
And by my father’s teenage need to leave that land and make his life his own. And by my uncle’s trying to stay where I was sure we all belonged. And by Grandad’s explaining that even the hencotes would go. So the scheme to keep one to use as a den, that went south as well.
The parlour’s long since seen a cow, there’s nothing like a farm there now but the breath of beasts on a winter day and the sweetness of cowshit and hay surprise that grief back into me.
Accounts and correspondence, attached with failing staples, complete the detail of a sale of Live and Dead Farming Stock.
Dead just means inanimate, not deceased.
Then, in the Particulars, I find the line that honours my line, and all they left here ‘The land will be seen to be in a high state of fertility.’
“Oh bugger!”, the words thud. I’ve just put the fork through a spud.
I’m showing our son and daughter something I learnt from my father which my Grandad had taught him before.
“You start a bit off, away from the green, keep the fork away from the tubers, you want to lift ‘em, not pierce ‘em, and they’ll not store if you fork ‘em, they’ll be no good if you fork ‘em’.”
Again the fork sinks, again the soil shifts and this time a big‘un gets stuck on a tine. “Oh bugger!” I thud before I’m stood up and quick as an echo the lad pipes up with “That’s what our Grandad said when he put his fork through a spud.”