Issue 3: Helen Mort

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.