Strident laughter from you would be unusual,
your metier was irony, palpable wit, the sound
of precise language, considered and cared for,
whilst I guess that lies, debauched speech,
courtesans, umbrella stealers, too much
alcohol, chattering, bored women, expensive perfume,
grand hotels, wife-swapping and roulette were ruled out,
as were the Prince of Wales, all his mistresses,
slavery, poodles and pomanders, hypocrites
bear-baiting, cock fighting, and, had they been invented,
Mills and Boone, selfies and cell-phones.
You had to wait fifteen years to be published
so you embroidered, wrote letters in copper-plate,
played the piano and cards and blushed sometimes.
You knew you would die earlier than most.
You collected the things I love. Listening to your
laugh, enjoying your irony and falling for you
would have been easy. One look enough, one nod.
Here’s a photograph of you dancing
and singing on a rock beneath the north face
of the Vignemale; the highest point,
two sticks raised, your hair blown back
by the updraught of the columned valley;
I was the only onlooker that day
as the spiral rocks parcelled your voice
and amplified it back or caught the clack
of your sticks on the bone-hard scarp.
Your subject was the wild horses we stalked
as they scraped their backs on the cedars,
Ibex steadying as we ran toward them,
the solitary gypaete circling for marmottes;
all of it understood, but not described
as when the season drives down the snows
into rivulets and calls up twelve orders of flowers,
wild mountain strawberries and herds
of yellow-chrome butterflies nosing the Buddleia.
You could not describe but only sang out,
stepped out, with no words and only
with a scratchy out of focus chant
that split and stopped the mountain,
then fell itself silent and set you in this
charcoal square image in my fingers,
four stone-struck centimetres by four.
You never believed it, father,
the way we are conjugated
by the tenses of our hearts,
the way, one eye on syntax,
we step up and pirouette.
I was always a syllable
under your knees, a curled
finger in your fist and all
I wished was to set you free
from your stamped out nouns.
My notation discarded
under your stumbling words,
I was locked into longer
and longer clauses. Now,
face to face, we start a story
we should have finished long ago.
It’s too hot today for wind
so I take the basket outside,
stack your bills and letters on the lawn,
and out of habit, pin them down with stones.
You disappeared into asylums
when my Gran and Dad began to grind you down
and I had to grow up delivering your care
at a distance when you faded away.
All over the papers are granules of lavender,
then my school reports and finally,
in a leather case, at the bottom,
there’s me, in a cowboy suit, carrying a gun.
Clouds on the Adriatic
cold as England
and me concerned
about my flight back,
whether to ring,
find the columned basilica,
through its apocryphal tunnel
of hollowed masonry
and up there, over there,
the blue, gold mosaic icons
sunlit, somehow, from inside,
on the ceiling, the icons,
and me smiling
as if planning a journey.
There’s a room called the Underpass room which is not really appropriate for Exclusions. I
must say, I’ve never found Exclusions easy. I’ve no back up that day. It always makes things
worse. Mr. Spandler is booked on the 14.00 Emirates to Bangkok. I walk in, trying to look
concerned and Mr. Spandler says, ‘Steroids. Why I can’t walk. Steroids. Only reason.’
The problem with the underpass room is the noise. When an Airbus or something is
lifting up you have to stop talking. So we both look through the open door as this plane lifts
off. Then he says, ‘Normally I’d walk up the steps. Need a stick, maybe. That’s it. Steroids.
OK to smoke?’ I point at the red poster and say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Spandler; it’s regulations.’
Then he says, ‘Why I put on weight. Used to be around ten stone. It’s why I can’t
sleep. You’d think they’d tell you these things. Sex, though, can’t get enough. Trouble is
Roxanne can’t handle it nowadays; like it’s a favour. Steroids. That’s it. You got that sort of
I say, ‘You’ve got lung cancer?’
He says, ‘Lung cancer, yes. It’s why I’m going off to Bangkok. Cancer. They take it
out. Did it before. Gave me another two years. What’s your name? This is it, on the desk?
Raymond? Yes. Well, Ray, I was OK two years. You get there; they take it out; fixed. Cash
on the table. Chanchoi, that’s his name, Dr. Chanchoi. He does it. Great. That’s it.’
Another plane is taking off now and they’re finally bringing all his baggage down, as
usual in Exclusions. Sometimes it’s necessary to confront clients with what we’ve found.
Any way, he looks at them stacking the baggage then he says, ‘Lungs? Yes, Ray, lungs.
Other places too. Lots of other places. Lungs. That’s it.’
One of your responsibilities in these Exclusions is to make some sort of compromise; it’s a
key part of Aviation Medicine. Three years in College, one year with a mentor, learning
transactional and psychological techniques. Both very important. Compromise for me is
gaining client acknowledgement, as in, ‘we’re both here working towards some sort of
recognition of the situation in hand.’ It’s a mutual thing. So I say, ‘Mr. Spandler, I’m here on
behalf of Emirates, trying to help us all become aware of your needs.’
He says, ‘Ray, I’ll tell you something. When I told Roxanne I was going to see
Chanchoi again, she said, ‘Flying? ‘You must be frigging mad.’’
There you are. By this time Mr. Chandler is looking out of the door. He says, ‘Nice day, Ray.
Even Southend would look good today. Blue skies, green leaves. Not like Thailand, though.
Patong beach. Ever been there Ray? That’s where I first saw Roxanne. Thirty years ago.
Blimey. She’s weathered well. Can be difficult though. Always had problems with women.
Love ‘em. Starting with mother. Don’t know about you, Ray, but UK was never enough for
me. I guess you get around a bit on planes. Free for you isn’t it? You’re like me aren’t you,
always needed a change, reaching out? Where you from Ray? Round here? Me, I’m East
End, still there in a way, that way of life. No dad. No brothers though. That was the problem,
see. Mum flapping around all the time, trying to do the right thing. Mum was a flapper.’ He
flaps his hands at me and says, ‘All my life, got mixed up with strong people. Strong women,
strong men. Telling me what to do. Roxanne’s right, though. Time’s running out. Gotta get
stuff done, clear things up. I like things being tidy, don’t you, Ray? Gets worse, you get
older, don’t you find that? Wondering what the f… you’re doing. Sorry, Ray, language, but
For me, by this time, what was emerging was the idea of avoiding unnecessary costs,
people paying for lawyers when money is better spent in moving on, as it were. I can have
my moments though; I can be firm if necessary. I know how to keep my cards up my sleeve.
Play the long game, if you see what I mean. Sometimes things have to come to a head. You
need a sense of when that starts to happen.
Mr Chandler says, ‘It’s like sex. That’s it. Job I do, you need to make sure you’re OK;
know the right people, else you’re in the shit. Keep in touch with ‘em. That stuff. Sex is
different. Know what, Ray? It’s out of the blue, isn’t it? Corner of your eye. Blows you away.
Like Roxanne. Patong beach. That’s it.’
I really needed to get away early this day. The only way was to drive down to Hove,
talk to you, Anton, agree a joint way forward. Then back to Reigate for dinner with Sandra
and the boys. So I say, ‘Mr. Spandler. I’m aware of the time, your time, our time. Are we
agreed, then, that any reasonable doctor would feel there’s only one way forward. You must
see that’s logical?’
He says, ‘Logical.’ as if he’d never heard of the word. He says, ‘My view, Ray, none
of these doctors are logical. Apart from Chanchoi, they all look knackered. NHS they’re
always running late. Too knackered to be logical. You know something, I’ll tell you this,
Ray, haven’t told many people. Fifteen, twenty years ago, I got to know this doctor, what’s
her name, really well. Done my knee lifting something. She’d fixed me up in Harley Street.
After the operation, I’m paying out the cash for the knee, she looks at me. Next thing, we’re
in bed. Know what I mean, Ray? Amazing; very passionate. Told me about her Dad,
husband, drug problem. Tried to get her off Coke. Dad was the real problem. Husband’s no
better. She was never good enough for them. I ended up being her shrink. She said she was in
love with me. Sex, that’s not logical. Blows you away. That’s it, Ray.’
I hadn’t slept the previous night. Not a wink. The reason’s obvious. If you remember,
it was either I tell Sandra or you will. I simply can’t go on, night after night lying next to her,
feeling guilty, hiding the mobile bills, deleting texts, feeling bad with the boys. I say, ‘Sorry,
what do you mean, not logical?’
He says, ‘That stop-over in Dubai; two hours, they re-fuel. She was the one, that
doctor. Winter after we’d met, must have been. Coming back, wandering around the terminal
in a state, thinking about the doctor. Which woman, I’m thinking? Two of em, Ray. That’s it.
I landed, got to do it. Clock’s ticking. You know what? It wasn’t them, Ray. It was me. Me
and two different women, me in the middle. Both at the same time. Doesn’t work. Piece of
iron on the table. Two magnets, one either side. In the middle. That’s me in Dubai. That’s it.
Two of them. It’s me. I’m in the middle.’
By this time I’m getting really desperate. I look at him.
He says, ‘Don’t work on wood, do they Ray?’
I say ‘What?’
He says, ‘Magnets. Wood, milk-bottle tops, stuff. Only iron. Has to be. What do you
I stand up and say, ‘Mr. Spandler, will you excuse me for a minute?’ I have to get out,
consider the options. Mr. Spandler, in my view, needs to do the same. The next flight is in
two hours, but there will be others. I’ve been here before. It was not going to be a quick fix.
Outside is when I take out the mobile and ring you, Anton, not for advice so much as just a
chat. Sort of touching base. I couldn’t tell you all the details in case someone overheard.
By now it’s mid-day. I walk back in, close the screen door and set the mobile on record,
ready for business. Mr. Spandler is half asleep over the desk, head on his hand. I explain that
all we need now is for the other party, which is Mr.Spandler, to recognise reality and be
reasonable. Everyone can then leave happily, as it were, and get on with their lives. No
recriminations, no formal procedures. None of that, ‘you should have this, I should have
He says, ‘You ever do that, Ray, hop-scotch?’
I say, ‘Hop-Scotch?’
He says, ‘Yeah, back in Bermondsey, drawing hop-scotch lines on the street with
chalk, falling over, killing yourself laughing. Must be six, seven years old. That’s it; kids.
Deep down, people want to open up, just like kids. That’s why we fall in love, whatever,
innit? My first wife, very edgy. Slightest thing, off she’d go. I loved her. You have to love
‘em, don’t you, Ray? But can you live with ‘em? That’s it. Walking on egg-shells.
Simmering away inside. Bang, no warning, off she’d go, bloody volcano. Others, like the
Harley street lady, deep down. Quieter. Need something like a can opener. Psychology stuff.
Know what? Psychologists, just as f…ed as the rest of us. That’s it. All of us, remembering.
Looking back. Sex, drugs, rock & roll; f…ing hop-scotch. Fancy that. Wanting it back, once,
just before you die, before it’s too late, right person. Harley Street was me. But what about
Roxanne? That’s it. Who’s your favourite?’
I say, ‘I beg your pardon?’
He says, ‘Favourite musician. You know.’
I say, ‘Mr. Spandler, there’s not really time.’
He says, ‘Go on.’
I think of you, Anton and say, ‘Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Miles Davies.’
He says, ‘Mine’s thingy. See, I can’t remember names any more. Sometimes Roxanne
fills in. Other times she just gets on with reading the paper. Never liked people who talk.
People I work with, hard f…ers just get on with it, don’t talk. There it is and you’re there.
Now, though, can’t sleep, steroids, go down, watch telly all night. Sixty channels, flicking
through. Rubbish, then ping, there it is. Like women. Ping, that’s the one. That’s it. Everyone
living longer. Some people die young. We love ‘em. Jesus Christ, he’s one. Buddy Holly,
thingy in T.Rex. Poets die young as well. Bang, get it over with, then die. Love ‘em. What if
you haven’t finished? What if you really want to carry on, Ray? It’s all choices in it?’
I say, ‘Look, Mr.Spandler. I can see that would be an option, carrying on. In my view,
it’s not our preferred option. Your current medical state is against you. There has to be
another option. We can take care of you; make sure you get home safely. Carrying on to
Bangkok is not an ideal option. No it can’t be. No.No.No!’ I’m banging the table, I’m raising
my voice and banging the desk, things you should never do in these situations. I know, I
know, I have to calm down. I stare at him and say, ‘Mr. Spandler, we know quite a lot about
you, criminal history and so forth. Let’s say we found something in your bags. You may not
even know it’s there, but we’ll find it anyway. That could be really unpleasant, your record.
I’m sure you don’t want that.’
He leans over my desk and whispers something, pointing behind me at the mirror. I
turn round to look and say, ‘What?’
He says, ‘Anyone through there? No? OK. Turn the recorder off, Ray.’
I’ve no idea how Mr.Spandler knew about the mirror and the PDA, but there’s no
choice, I lift the phone out on the desk and turn it off. Then he says, ‘You heard of a geezer
called Ronnie Kray? Well, he was all right. Some didn’t like him. Could be nasty. He was
gay, bi- or whatever. No problem. Thing is, George Cornell called him a fat poofta one day in
the Blind Beggar. You don’t do that sort of thing, Ray. Not to Ronnie Cray, not to anybody.
Me, I’d never do it. Anyway, Ronnie blew his head off. Little bugger deserved it. Made a
mess though, I was there.’ Then he leans over and says, ‘This is yours, Ray.’ And he shows
me that photo of you I keep under the diary in my desk. I’m fuming. I grab at it; I try to grab
him as well. I’m shouting, ‘How dare you go through my things. That’s it; this is serious,
now you’re in serious trouble. You’re going to regret this.’
He hands me the photo, then he says, ‘It’s OK. Nice looking guy, your friend. It’s
gonna be OK, Ray. Bangkok, you see everything. I’ve seen everything. You’ll be allright.’
Then he looks out of the door. Another jet is taking off. I couldn’t make out what he was
saying. I think it was, ‘Lovely day.’