Six.

They tortured children for painting slogans on a wall. Remember, this is how it began. Children painting slogans. They threw them in prison and the counting began.

One.

We were protesting in Marjeh square. There were placards. Songs in our hearts that would soon be replaced by bullets in our chests. But history was with us, the world was with us. They had gone too far; now everything was going to change. We were excited then.

Two.

Before it was our homes. Now whole cities were on fire. Aleppo started to burn.

World leaders said stop. But Aleppo is still burning.

Everyone saw it. Yet people took to the streets to insist their leaders do nothing. ‘Stop the war’ they said, whatever that meant – should we go back to how things were? They have been killing us for years and calling it peace. Oh brave men with your brave flags and your brave words – where were you when we were dying?

Three.

They dropped chemical weapons on schools. Then they told the world they’d stop. So where are the ones they killed since? Where are the women and the children they killed with the bombs they didn’t have?

Perhaps because we had no oil, the west did not intervene. But others did. Islamic State were one. We didn’t know them. They came from outside. They had never lived with us but they fought us and killed us, for what? For the pleasure of fighting Assad? Brothers, go back to your families. We have nothing left to steal.

Four.

My neighbours shouted his name as they dug him from the ruins of his school. I felt sure that it couldn’t have been him. I remembered shouting his name six years ago. My boy, when he was born. My boy, when he was pulled from the rubble. I crumbled to the ground and shook, weeping. I wasn’t a man, I was only a father. I couldn’t speak to my brother, I couldn’t speak to my wife.

Four years had passed in which this could have been averted. As our so-called leaders sat in palaces they didn’t deserve, my boy was dead. He was six years old – how was he to blame for the war?

Five.

The world carved us up on maps. They talked about transition and wrote communiques about a diplomatic solution. Our government scored out their promises before they even said them. The world said “No more” and spoke about ceasefires. Ceasefires that didn’t apply to us. They were targeting terrorists, they said. Who knew there were terrorists sleeping in our babies’ cots or inside the walls of our schools? Who knew there were terrorists in every single hospital? They called it a cease-fire. Who knew that peace could be a weapon? Another cease fire, another way to kill us.

They passed motions, organised summits.
They said the only way forward was with Assad. I said you have never been to Syria, have you?

Six.

I had felt the building shake before but this time was different. From my window I saw the white helmets charging down my street like soldiers but with blankets instead of weapons and bandages instead of flags. When the world ran away from Aleppo’s fires they ran into them to save people from bombs that didn’t exist. They showed us how to be heroes. I took my helmet from under the floorboards and ran down the stairs screaming ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’. It was a prayer for something better and gentler and kinder.
Six.
Aleppo is still burning, what’s left of it is still burning.
Six years.
When people are just numbers, someone has to count.

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Faith

What is faith, she asked me.

We had both read the bible.
The assurance of things hoped for.
The conviction of things not seen, she expected me to say.

But what is it.

When I studied science, my friends would ask me – how can you believe? We discussed the matter rationally. As though faith existed within the bounds of something. As though faith were just perspective. I admire your faith, they said to me.

When I was an activist, my friends would ask me – how do you balance your politics and your faith?
We all wanted to change something. My faith made me sceptical, my faith made me challenge the norms that were handed down to me. Faith made me an unbeliever. I didn’t believe that people’s value was found in how they looked, how much they were paid or how well they could cope. When there was famine or joblessness or suicide, when there was self-harm or self-hate, when I was told this was the truth, that anxiety would win and hunger and poverty would win, faith whispered: Don’t believe in everything.

When I was wrong it was a mirror. When I was sick He was my salve.

What is faith, she asked me.

I remembered working with a charity that mentored young people in the arts. After each event they recounted the people they had met: Ashley’s job interview was tomorrow; Jasmine was having trouble staying clean; Martin was cutting again. Drugs and alcohol were recurring themes. They thanked God for the privilege of meeting strangers and they asked Him to change their city. They wept as they prayed but I have never felt such optimism. Like something was about to happen.

I remembered seeing a woman praying outside my window. She was walking the streets of her city, quietly calling forth the future. She was dressed normally. She looked like everyone else. But something was different.

What is faith, she asked me.

I don’t know, I said. Show it to me.

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Easter Sunday

Suzie was a prostitute. Not a sex worker or a call girl, not someone in bad company at a bad time. She was a prostitute. That’s what it’s called when you can’t believe in anybody except for yourself. That Easter Sunday she had found herself dragged along to a church by a friend who wanted the company. Britney was different to her – Britney was ditzy and curious and she disliked being alone.

The pastor asked the congregation to take some time to remember the cross, but Suzie had never been there and had nothing to remember. After an uncomfortable silence, when her eyes had flicked between the cross on the wall, to the cross on her neck to Britney with her brow furrowed, remembering hard – the Pastor told them to remember the tomb.

To think about the death of God. What?
What an amazing God, the Pastor had said, for choosing torture over heaven, us over life. Pray, the Pastor had said, for Jesus to show you how much He loves you.

Suzy felt nothing. And what was love anyway?

The cue for hurt. A lie other women believed. Money. A chemical fizz.

Whatever love was, she’d never known its company or trusted its men. She kept love at a safe distance. Charged it, quantified it, measured it out. She wanted more from love than it took from her. A man wrote her a poem once. She pinned it to the wall, every time he came. Love was no longer her tormentor, love was a client.

The pastor asked the congregation to think about the resurrection. Suzie hadn’t understood. What was resurrection? What did the word mean? When they saw it, the disciples suddenly believed. But who were the ‘disciples’ and why take so long? Suzie had believed in her mother. Suzie believed in her father before he died, too – proof she never should have. She trusted herself. She believed in herself. She was everything she needed just to survive.

Leaving the church, Suzie asked her friend Britney what resurrection meant.
Britney said it meant God died and came back. Suzie thought about that as they walked the rest of the way home in silence.

That Easter Sunday she prayed for the first time in her life. Not to the God who cried for her or the God who suffered for her or even the God who died. She prayed to the God who came back.

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Bargaining

I will offer you a hundred days of perfect anger for a night of perfect passion. I will make you promises so earnestly and so often that you will always wonder if I meant them or if my pull like your stay was simply psychological. I haven’t written you a poem. I will never look inside myself for the reasons you said no.

Your hand in my hand, my hand on yours. We will work together. Captivity, like love, takes effort.

I will listen more and speak less and less. Replace every old crack in our relationship with new ones. I will try harder. And harder.

 

And call it love.

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Burn The Censors

Dear Despot, I began, before backspacing over it. Too emotive, too direct. Too grandiose a title.
Dear Anti- no. He hates being called that.
Department of Infernal Affairs. No.
To Whom It May Concern. Yes.
Enter.
I resign.

You can dock my wages or refuse to give me a reference. I know I run the risk that you will crucify me in the media. Go on. Tell the world I’m a terrorist or a paedophile or a disgruntled civil servant. It doesn’t matter. I am gone. I cannot work for you another day.

I have carried out every instruction you have given me. Written every letter, doctored every file. I have used children and pestilence and bombs but what you ask of me now is wrong. Our partnership is over. I ask only that you consider my service to date and allow us to part ways amicably.

Perhaps because I am a man, I did not take issue with your obvious hatred of women. When you instructed me to condemn, I created products to flatter. I filled every billboard and web page in the world with the message that beauty is worth. I created magazines that wrote the rest for me, filled with adverts and reviews that never told what I was selling. Every purchase reinforced our message. I worked and worked, coming up with new ideas every day like self-harm, eating disorders and so-called sexual revolution. I made sure the men believed it first. Never did I rest. I wrote the gender pay gap into law, filling the gaps between the statutes with unrepealable silence.
And it worked. Nation after nation exchanged their glory for nakedness and covered their nakedness with shame. Then feminism came and you blamed me for that.

Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the wars. Those bloody wars. So much paperwork. How difficult they were to devise. Target the poor, you said. Children if you can. And I could. I forced people to believe their very survival depended upon providing me with weapons to kill them with. “Forced”! I only showed them the faces of their brothers and sisters, they spat in them themselves. I gave them the chance of brotherhood, they supplied the fear. That’s what I love about free will. It turns science into art.

You always told me I was being too obvious; that I would be found out eventually. I wasn’t. I used their own frailty against them and always covered my tracks. I used intermediaries. Bankers, politicians, clergymen, celebrities – not you obviously, I would never use you. They really can’t see it, you know. They always think the corruption is isolated to just one group. How easy that makes it to simply move on to the next. No, you cannot fault me. In everything I have done I have always been a credit to the service.

All this to say nothing of my work on mental illness, censorship, masculinity and the Middle East. Or on democracy. I doubt I will live to receive a pension but I fail to see how I could have done anything more. Except this. Except this.

You asked me to vote for you. I won’t do it. I won’t. Your request is denied. I will happily proclaim to you the finer points of my work. I am proud of the great skill required, proud of the beauty achieved. As a profession, certainly, but as a choice, a way of life? Do you expect me to close my eyes and call it true? I will not be made a fool of. I will not build my own prison, step inside and give to you the key.

I know I haven’t long left. I know this letter will get to you eventually.
That’s why I’m not sending it to you.

I’m sending it to them.

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Merry Christmas Callum

This is just a shout out to my favourite 9 year old, Callum, who is SO cool that we might just need a new word for it. I don’t quite understand how it is possible for someone to be so smart, funny, charasmatic and fun to be around by such a young age, but somehow Callum has done it. Well done Callum.

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The Question

I want to find love, she tells me, looking straight into me but not really seeing, I think. I want to be loved, she says, and I told her that she was loved, like I was passing on a message.

I see history in her eyes but she never speaks of it. The same girl in another country. Her hands are clean but stained. There are few tents and little rain. The money has run dry but she reaches inside for kindness and treasure. She gives and gives. And never speaks of it.

I want a family, she says and I want that too I said, shivering. I wasn’t in love, I was pretending to be cold.

There is a quality to her voice when she speaks. When she speaks I can hear emotion, a long e, when she speaks it sounds like she is listening. I remember how I felt when I first met her. Now I feel that even more. I say nothing and hope she isn’t listening.

She cries and I cry and the perfect time to hold her comes and stays. I say nothing, let it pass. We argue, flatter, offer each other words of comfort and pray to the God I hold most precious.

What could be so important
that I would leave that room silent
with no regrets?

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Cafe chat

At first it’s one noise.
Then sounds, one after the other.
Machines and voices. Plates collected. Laughing. Change in a jar. Repeating words.

Table eight.
Repeating words. Rottweiler.
Aye, Rottweiler.
Who lets a Rottweiler near kids.
Terrier aye. Friendly lab or retriever. Mongrel even.
But a Rottweiler.
Around Kids.
Do you want to stay for a minute before-
Aye, just a few minutes.

Four.
Typing in the corner, mouthing out the words.
She’s too close to see that he feels the same way.
You can’t tell if it’s an essay or a song. Just two people sitting, hunched over a screen, the last ones to leave.

Two…
She is sitting in a café in a town that calls itself a city with big open streets and strangers who say sorry. She is full of Hong Kong traffic, sparkling night times, bright urban temples, the smell of street food, foreign airports.
She’s sitting in a café, sipping coffee on her own and she loves this feeling.

Eleven.
They sit in silence.
Arms folded. A father and his daughter.
Sitting for an hour or more, pretending they’re not alone.
They’ve covered college. And that business with the car.
They don’t mention Heather and they don’t mention the wedding or the house or why he left or why she stayed. He doesn’t ask her what she’s thinking and she doesn’t ask him what he was thinking.
He misses her, and she knows. She needs to hear it and he knows.
Plates away.
I’ll pay.
Jackets on.

Along the walls are paintings, each with a face looking back.

In the back there’s a writer, sitting on his own with his earphones in, obsessing over words.
Something is missing. Somewhere.
Something in the ‘and’.
Somewhere in the ‘for’. And the ‘with’.

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The Exceptionals

We are the unco, byous, braw exceptionals!
Push it intae words, bang it doon tae the table in Inglis, this is ma hert, this is ma heid. Whack: Ah’m fae Glesga. Aye! Aye! Aye!

Claimed it, cherished it, chanted it, aye
Never earnt it but
never really looked at it in a mirror
never really mended it, missed it
Jis cherished it kissed it

This is who we are so haud ontae it – the mauments we were guid, see that, see that, that’s Scotland, aye, that’s us. Miners. Inventors. Poleteecians. That’s us. Clearances, aye. Hume. David Hume. That’s us…och its gone again, but did you see it there, aye? Aye.
Get it awa fae ye the mauments we were hertless, racist, cruel, the mauments we didna care, the mauments we looked awa an ravaged your country bare. Aye. Aye. A poke in the ‘aye’. Oor history’s blue and white wi no blood red, oor country’s sober, fat, unfed,
we are the unco byous braw exceptionals
repeat it believe it repeat it believe it
it wisna me
repeat it believe it
it wisna me

See, it wis aw ae us, cept when it wisnae
Close the curtains, open the blogs, let the guid stuff in
Mebbe Scotland’s mair than whit ye think it is
And at the same time? Mebbe Scotland’s less
Close the blogs, open the curtains, let the guid stuff in

Ower muckle poetry oan wan wird politeecs
No jis aye or naw but ane an aw
the kick, the blaw
dinna say your for us or agin us
we ken wir aw saunts an sinners

::Published in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry (Luath Press)

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The Answer

Came to me in tides.
Water and dirt.
A rush of noise then                silence.
Sound and wait.
Just wait.

Standing too close.
It ebbs and it flows.
Silence is song. And water is prose.
And wait
and wait
and wait.

The sand empties and fills like a lung. Like the land is sighing. Like the land is waiting.
Instead of jewels, I have stones. Instead of youth, I have time. Instead of soldiers, I have seashells.
I came for an answer. Not to shout or to throw myself into the water and say that I am done with trust.
Instead of noise, I have truth.

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