my skin touched the skin of a martyr

My skin touched the skin of a martyr

many years before. I was trying to protect him

from being attacked. His glasses were broken

into his face and his blood was on my sleeve.

That jacket still hangs

in the back of my wardrobe. I had forgotten it was there

but when I heard went and checked.

It’s old and worn out and tight on the shoulders

and speckled with dried-in black blood.

I washed the blood from my hands

when I went home that evening

and forgot all about it for twenty five years.

Back to school

There’s tension on the tenement stairs. None of the doors are yet open but you can feel it. Slow time passes. A snag of August rain sweeps in as the street door opens. The first silent children set off for the first day of school, faces pale, clothes for the year too baggy.

The coffin was heavy

The coffin was heavy and carried on shoulders, the men’s arms linked at the elbow. Their faces shone with sweat. At the door of the church they had to jostle their way though the onlookers and their umbrellas. It had started to rain again. The family followed, their faces streaked wet. The church had been full.

The rain was fine and persistent. People looked down the road as it curved round behind the town wall and disappeared towards the cemetery. A few women decided then not to go on, they turned left or right and into their houses, shaking their umbrellas and loosening their scarves. They closed the shutter doors behind them.

The procession disappeared into the distance as the single bell tolled, its echoes rolling along the narrow streets of closed shutters. Later, the smell of the rain on the dust still strong, the town would begin to breathe again and the people of the procession would return as individuals or pairs, freed from the magnetics of the dead.

They would drink coffee and tell quiet stories until the clouds cleared, as they inevitably would.


Michael, Glasgow

He was sobbing. I stopped. It was minus five degrees. 

His ma had just died. She was a great wee woman who hated that her son was a junkie. It was minus five degrees. 

He sat crosslegged on the filthy thin sleeping bag on the pavement. Someone had paid for him to stay in a B&B for two nights but then the money ran out and he had to leave. He sobbed. It was minus five degrees. 

He could have a hostel bed in three nights’ time but now he was on the streets and scared to death. His ma had just died. It was minus five degrees.

She loved him but she just couldn’t cope. I held him tight as we hugged. He sobbed. It was minus five degrees.

11:00, 11/11/2018

At eleven o’clock we stopped running and stood still, holding in harsh breath. Leaves of gold and camouflage brown twisted as they fell. People walking saw us standing, arms folded or by our sides, and checked their wrists and slowed and stopped. Across the Meadows children screamed and shouted in the play park, their happiness sharp in the silence. A cyclist sped by, oblivious, and people began to walk again. We remained heads bowed, each one counting their blessings and their sorrows.

Airport arrivals

An elderly couple catches sight of their daughter. There are long, long hugs. Mum hides her tears by straightening her daughter’s collar, Dad does the same by busily wheeling the trolley away. Daughter does not hide her tears, she lets them flow from wide-open eyes, but slows them by smiling tight-lipped at people in the waiting crowd. And the tears seem to be as catching as yawns; I am one of the grown men clearing my throat, my fist to the bridge of my nose. Then, recognising a shared emotion through the tears, we nod and smile at strangers. And then we all move in our own directions.

Book confessions

  1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Minor damage only. During the week I usually only read in bed and if I give up on a book it can end up thrown across the bedroom. If they hit the wardrobe at an angle, they usually glance off, but if it’s a direct spine-on hit, the damage is visible.

  1. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Never that I remember. Someone must really like a book to recommend it, let alone lend it, so that would be unforgiveable, as would damaging a library book.

  1. How long does it take you to read a book?

It depends on the book and on where I am and what I am doing. Earlier in the year I took 6 weeks to finish a book, while when I was holiday I was reading one a day or every two days.

  1. Books you haven’t finished?

Too many to mention. Life is too short. I always give a book a fair chance though. And the important thing to remember, as in any relationship, it could be me, it could be the book, or it could be a combination.

  1. Hyped/Popular books you didn’t like?

By the time I read books they are usually well past their hyper period – my to-be-read shelves are groaning, especially after the Edinburgh Book Festival.

  1. Is there a book you wouldn’t tell anyone you were reading?

I can’t imagine one.

  1. How many books do you own?

Most of the shelves in the flat are double-lined with books, the ones in the rear alphabetically ordered, the ones in front piled up in ‘when-bought’ stacks.

  1. Are you a fast/slow reader?

Fast. I spent some time in hospital when I was young and started reading a book a day. My parents could not quite believe it.

  1. Do you like to buddy read?

I am not sure what that means but I do like talking about books with others.

  1. Do you read better in your head/out loud?

I do not often read out loud. I did take part in Iraq Out Loud though, where the Chilcot report was read out 24/7 ( That was a fascinating experience.

  1. If you were only allowed to own one book, what would it be and why?

None rather than one. If you are going to be extreme, go all the way.