Extracts from the sequence ‘A Pint For The Ghost’
A Brandy for the Hitchhiker
Past midnight on the road to Owler Bar,
I tell myself the story of the pale-faced hitchhiker
who waited here for headlights in the thicket-dark.
In some accounts the evening’s still and moonless.
In other tales, the sky is punched with stars so bright
the lorry driver sees him in their downy light.
But no-one doubts the detail of his deadly silence
as they drove, those flint-blue eyes that never lifted
from the road ahead, no matter what was said to him,
or how, just shy of town, the driver glanced across
and found the seat was empty
and the dark outside was silent as his own dark grave:
its carved inscription suddenly seen clear
as if he stood before it in the churchyard, looking down,
and knew the very air was rid of him.
Short Measure for the Gabriel Hound
Each time I read a cloud’s dark countenance
or watch two crows stitch out a warning
in the clear blue air, I can’t forget
the Bradwell miners, bound for home
without a lamp to guide them, night as heavy
as the earth they’d toiled beneath all day.
They heard the long grass stir. They stood
dead still. A beam, sharp as a skinning knife
shone from the moon down to the hill
and carved the huge shape of a hound; a dog so quick
they’d barely taken flight before they heard it bay
and felt its harsh breath at their heels. They ran
full speed with burning lungs until the dawn,
until the daylight overtook them and they went,
grim-faced, down to the mine
to meet their certain fate. Remember them
as you lie in bed, when the empty house
has fallen still, and you stare through open curtains
at a starless sky, imagine it’s a dog’s
black flank that passes you, bound
for somewhere else tonight.
A Shot for the Ghost in the Machine
The ancient nurse who haunts the Derby Royal x-ray booth is nothing
if she’s not a slave to truth: beneath the blueprints of our bones,
her scans reveal those secrets we thought safe until the grave.
On Ward 15, a woman strokes her husband’s hand, or gently
smoothes her straw-blonde hair, for who is she to guess
as she reclines against her chair, that soon the nurse will
call her in and trace the outline of her ribcage, then,
below its latticework, the silver calligraphy of her lover’s name
etched on a pocket watch she gave to him three years ago?
And if her doting husband were to break his leg one day,
in some small mishap on the rain-slicked, flagstone patio,
the scans would show his femur hides the slender penknife
he once held against a woman’s throat, half-cut on brandy, joking
that his hand might slip, while she stood trembling against the wall.
Don’t panic, love. It were a joke. I’ve had a few, that’s all.
A dram for all the men I’ve never drunk with
Sigmund Freud refuses every neat Ardbeg
or soft Caul Isla swirled beneath his nose,
but Byron knocks them back in one, then winks
and taps his glass against the lacquered tabletop.
Beside me, Marx is dishing out full measures
of the sherry-finished, twelve-year old Ledaig
but Larkin’s nothing but a bitter man, he says,
he’ll have no truck with spirits.
I’ve brought them to my local, in the snug
armpit of Sheffield, where the landlord
doesn’t bat an eyelid if my wise companions
sometimes slip their guard;
pass fingers through their glasses, take a shortcut
through a wall to reach the loos. It’s Sat’dy neet
he says, there’s stranger folk in here than these.
And, after all, he’s seen the likes of me before as well,
he gently lifts them out of corner seats
past closing time; the women who arrive alone,
who murmur toasts into the air, who raise a glass
to men who’ve never answered them.
[Helen Mort’s pamphlet, ‘the shape of every box’ was published by tall-lighthouse press in 2007. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007, and the Manchester Young Writer prize in 2008. A Pint For The Ghost will be published by tall-lighthouse in July 2009 and forms the script for a one-woman show, touring later this year.]
Copyright © 2009 by Helen Mort, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.