62 year-old prize-winning* poet and recovering actor Ken Cumberlidge was born in Birkenhead and cut his performance teeth on the Liverpool pub poetry scene of the 1970s. His work has appeared variously in print and, more recently, in numerous online journals. Since 2011 Ken has been based in Norwich, but can be lured out of cover by good company and an open mic – a proclivity that has led him to become an habitué of the fetid underworld that is the slam poetry/spoken word scene. He likes it. A lot.
Ken’s poetry on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/ken_cumberlidge_poetry
Ken’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrEPf1MlegfAJyKDA5-wNqQ
* the prize was a chocolate cake. He guessed its weight.
To the letter
(From the workshop prompt “write a letter to an inanimate object”. I chose to write a letter to the letter I was writing. A meta-letter, you might say.)
My Dear, Good starter, eh? Note the neat – nay, artful – way I've got around the greeting bit, avoided self-defeating it in endless meta-textual loops, tail-chasing to infinity. Instead, 'My Dear' — affectionate, sincere and yet succinctly circumspect; safely unspecific. A nifty fit, you must admit. And, take my word, you MUST. You have no say, you see – an irony not lost on me given that saying is the why, the what, the be and all of you; is – in a very real sense – the thing you do. But that's the deal, a contract worth the paper you’re being written on. Should its terms appear unusual, duress, let me impress on you: it was ever thus, and with good cause. Creators must by nature be dictators and as one such, I remain forever... Yours.
At the Zoo
We kissed while monkeys wanked behind glass screens read informative descriptions of creatures too depressed to show themselves queued for ice-cream that would still have been overpriced even if it had been good hid in the sea lion house, fleeing a berserker horde of sugar fuelled schoolkids shot straight out again, eyes streaming, having learned that sea lions reek of rotting fish and when the hail began and we shivered in our t-shirts huddled in a gap between an out-of-order toilet and the bins you grinned held me told me it was the best day out you'd ever had and I was glad, knowing you felt that way too.
Santa’s Little Helper
I screwed up. Not massively, but enough that it still makes me wince.
There was this moment, you see – a brief, specific window of opportunity – and I missed it, let it slip by.
In town: a mad-busy, finger-freezing, pre-xmas shopping day. A bus queue of the weary and over-laden, among them a young mother with her daughter at her side – I’m never good at judging children’s ages, but definitely too old for the buggy now being pressed into awkward service as cargo vessel, piled haphazardly with newly-bought toys, each individually bagged but by no means disguised. The child, I guessed, must have witnessed the purchase of every one of these: possibly overseen and directed the process, chosen the items herself. If this kid had ever believed in Santa, they were cheerfully under no such illusion now.
The bus stop was thronged. Good-humoured, though, and orderly. Every time a bus arrived, the queue would shuffle: re-order itself; every time the queue shuffled, the buggy would trundle forward; every time the buggy moved, one of the toys – always the same one – would shake loose and fall off.
Being nearest to hand and relatively unburdened (I’d only been into town to buy a shirt) I would pick the item up and hand it to the mother, we would share a smile, and then she would jam it back onto the pile, no less precariously than before, in the same place from which it had just fallen.
Had we not been strangers, I might have gently queried the wisdom of this – suggested that, rather than keep on trying to force something into a position where it clearly didn’t fit, maybe it might be a better idea to re-arrange the buggy’s contents a bit, let the item find its own space, one where it would feel more secure, less prone to upset and potential damage – but I didn’t feel it was my place.
It happened three times. On the third occasion, I’d just received a text, was in the middle of replying. As I crouched to retrieve the toy I saw that the daughter was also reaching for it. I passed it to her. She took the package, but did not return the smile. Instead, she looked thoughtful: almost puzzled. I returned to my texting. By the time my message was finished and sent, my right hand was pale with cold; I was glad to get my glove back on.
It was then I noticed that the girl was watching me, with that same look of perplexity, as if trying to work something out, to square some geometrically impossible circle.
I’d no idea why and cared little: far beyond me to fathom the mind of someone’s kid. My attention drifted to the electronic timetable display, idly curious to see just how much further behind schedule my bus had slipped since the last time I’d looked.
Then I heard her, in the kind of exaggerated stage whisper that only a child would ever believe could go publicly unnoticed, urgently trying to get her mother’s attention:
She tugged at her mother’s sleeve.
She gestured in my direction.
“What about him?”
“He’s got… NAILS.”
“Leave it. Shush.”
“But mam. That man! Why’s that man got…?”
“Shut up, Denise. NOW.”
…and that was it: the moment I knew I’d missed my moment.
It’s not as if I wasn’t ready! Even though I’d only been wearing nail varnish in public for about a month, I had all my ducks in a row, had marshalled a whole army of responses to possible reactions, from the knowing comments of adults, positive and otherwise, to this: the honest curiosity of a child. I’d have happily engaged with Denise – explained that I wore nail varnish for the same reason she did: because it was pretty and I liked it. If I’d done that – seized the moment when it arose and run with it – I could have saved her dog-tired, stressed-out mother from the pit of embarrassment in which she now writhed, and saved Denise from a bus journey home wondering what must be so very wrong about it – about me – that its explanation should be literally unspeakable.
Call me naive – a starry-eyed optimist! – but I like to think that one day (let it be soon), Denise will get it: that this whole business of there being only two paths in life, and of having to look and behave in a given way according to which path you’ve been assigned, like it’s hardwired into you from birth, is a lie: a fabrication, no more real than …Santa Claus. You know: just a story they tell to little kids.