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Poems and prose from Maria McCarthy

Slipping down

Boxing Day and when asked what you ate
for Christmas dinner you say,
"I should remember".

You are slumped in a high-backed chair,
covered with a name-labelled blanket:
someone else’s.

We are told that at the Christmas party
you boomed out the unerasable hymns,
rallied the others to sing.

Today you remember your daughter’s face,
not her name; and of your son you inquire,
"Have we met?"

You search my face much longer than you
would have thought proper if you were not
as you are.

I am introduced, again, as "Rob’s friend."
You scan from son to daughter,
and back again,

the half-formed thought refusing to set
like jelly made with too much water.
You shout, "I’ll have to think about that."

You’ve slipped further in your seat,
as your grandson does when watching TV.
Roger Moore as James Bond is on the dayroom set and
the woman in the red sweater wanders
in front of the screen and demands,
"Does anyone know what’s supposed to happen next?"

Your hands are bony thin; your thumbnail
thickened like a split hoof; and as you slip further
your shirt breaks free from belted trousers.

"We do put a tie on him," a care worker
says in a corridor. I have seen old photos,
tie and jacket, dapper.

"But there’s health and safety to consider.
Joggers, that’s what they need
when they get like that."
Your skinny bottom changed by day
from too-loose pyjamas
to baby rompers.

Time to sit up for the latest snack: soup,
two triangles of bread and ham.
You are lifted by three tabarded women,

one at each arm, a third at your waist.
You growl as you are raised.
You want to be left to slip down.

© Maria McCarthy


The night that Elvis died

On a date with Simon,
Airport 77
at the Odeon,
the night that Elvis died.

It rained so hard we climbed
onto the bench at the bus stop,
raindrops leaping up from the puddle below
as if they’d dipped their toe
and decided not to swim.

Eyes wide open when we kissed,
he jumped off the 406 at the clock tower,
lured by the hotdog van,
didn’t arrange to meet again.

"Elvis is dead", my sister said, silver-eyed,
as I shrugged off my dripping coat,
"Didn’t like him anyway", I replied.

© Maria McCarthy


Kidney-shaped soul

As a child raised Catholic, I came to believe that the soul was something tangible, like a flimsy, semi-opaque, flat, grey object, the size of an adult’s shoe-sole but slightly misshapen. More like the shape of the enamel kidney bowl that my mother used to fill with antiseptic and dip cotton wool into to bathe grazed knees and such. The soul is not inside the body but resting on it, hovering outside, invisible, just below the heart.

This soul, which the priests at St Joseph’s said was immortal, is the place where I feel and store things, like the love I had for my best friend Karen Regan. And it’s where it hurts when I laugh or cry too much. The soul is where I stored the humiliation of Christopher Pinkerton tearing up my Valentine’s card in Mrs Mead’s class and the rejection of the break-up with my first teenage love. My soul held the emptiness of my marriage continuing longer than it should have done, until that space began to heal with newfound love, like skin growing over a wound. The soul absorbed the transformation of childbirth, the learning curve of motherhood and the later rows with teenage daughters. Teenage tantrums have nothing to do with hormones – just the soul swelling and coming to terms with itself.

The soul, by the way, is always the same size; this semi-opaque, grey, kidney bowl-shaped, flimsy, plastic-like object. It’s the same size when you are a baby as when you are an old woman. You just grow into it. After all, it is immortal: it’s what you take with you after you die. And Heaven is full of souls that take on beautiful colours in the afterlife, floating light and free.

© Maria McCarthy


Biographical details

Maria McCarthy has been writing since 2000 and has been a member of writing groups in Medway, including Medway Mermaids. She recently gained an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. Maria writes poetry, short stories, memoir and has also written and broadcast columns for BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths. Her work has been published in Urban Fox anthologies, in the University of Kent’s Night Train series of anthologies and in magazines such as the Frogmore Papers, Logos, Equinox, Conversation Quarterly and Fourteen. Her story, A Tea Party, is web-published by Tales of the Decongested (www.decongested.com/). Maria has published two collections of prose and poetry, Learning to be English and Nothing But. They are available from Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester High Street.

Maria enjoys performing her work and has arranged two themed events at Medway libraries featuring her own work and that of other Medway writers and musicians. She hopes to be invited back. She has also taken part in events at the University of Kent, at the Medway Fringe Festival 2006 and at Foyles Bookshop in London.

Two poems and a short prose piece are featured above. Kidney-shaped Soul was written for Hauntings, a collection of personal ghost stories edited by Katherine May. It also appears in Maria’s collection Learning to be English. It springs from a childhood belief about what the soul looks like and what it is for. The Night that Elvis Died is from Maria’s latest poetry collection, Nothing But. The poet remembers a teenage date, ending in disappointment, on the night that she heard of Elvis Presley’s death. Slipping Down is a poignant poem, reflecting on a loved one’s decline into dementia, slipping towards death.

Maria is currently working on a collection of short stories As Long as it Takes, about first and second-generation Irish women living in England. She hopes to find a publisher for this.

She writes in A5 spiral-bound notebooks with a well-sharpened pencil.

The woodcuts on the covers of Learning to be English and Nothing But are by Maggie Drury.

Maria has a webpage which she updates on a regular basis: www.medwaymaria.co.uk/.