April – Ellen Phethean


Photographs of vintage fabrics by Jane Burn



Cuckmere Haven
In reach of London in the Austin,

weekend scent of leather seats,
the tartan rug, sliced bread and fish paste,
fug of cigarettes, and travel sweets.
Stops for petrol, nappies, car sick,
arguments about the route, family spats –
who sits front or back. To keep
the peace, a threat of Father’s smack.

A post-war pillbox, chalky cliffs
and shingle frame the scene:
Tom’s knee-length shorts and schoolboy fringe
all buckled-up in gabardine;
teenage Jean in outgrown sun dress,
awkward in her ankle socks,
and little Nutmeg grumpy, miffed
at baby in the Moses basket.

Father’s pea coat, fag in hand
Mother hums Don’t Fence Me In,
shares out food; getting away
from carpets, dust and cooking, being
outdoors her element – a nomad
in a former life, a survivor –
she would have kept on travelling.
But Father was the driver.

published in NORTHbound, Vane Women 2016








You were ill, very ill,
the birthday an excuse
to gather together:
the stage was set,
subtext dark
as an Ibsen drama.

You were thin, too thin,
smile painful as hot tea.
I cooked the chicken,
you directing from bed:
you joined us for the meal
round the table.

We gave the present, a ring,
found an occasion to laugh
when my son tried to eat
the brown jewelry box.
Emptying our glasses,
speaking our lines.

around you on the sofa.
Mother and father laid hands
on your shoulders, as if they
could keep you;
the window behind, a play
of half-shadow.

Hard as February light,
we knew, or half knew,
no-one said, or was sure
whether you wanted to go or stay.
The other woman’s shoes
under the bed by May.

published in From Horn’s House to Snook Tower, Carte Blanche Anthology 2014









Cloth-ears of gabardine don’t keep out the cold
but other things: the world’s a muffled story.
Pole-blue eyes of sea-glass behold
mysteries, looking inwards now.

Tongue a dusty path through green-gold
shades of pine, dry and quiet, not much traffic.
Bone-bobbin fingers, knuckled as pork, fold,
unfold and smooth an evening glove.

Sugar-snap skeleton wont be cajoled
into slippers, staying still, the TV lounge.
Exquisite Flanders lace, her mind intricately holed,
remembers beauty but cannot bear sense –

a folk tale, skewed and fusty, bowled
to her over and over, growing old.








Shuggy Boat Gigolo

Her lips meet his on the upward swing
of the sauce boat. She wears no ring,
he stands, wide trousers, waspy waist,
pinning her to the moment, all muscle and poise.
With carefree arms and brylcreemed hair, he’s done it
hundreds of times before; her hand grips
the pole. Is it fresh air – would she have succumbed
with her feet on the ground, or has she been waiting for this,
her best, or is it her only, real kiss?
From Hoppings to Lammas Fair, what’s the draw,
the dangerous urge to fly? Perhaps it’s like war:
we let our defences down – the rules relax
for the nearness of death – the chance of sex
or loss thrusting us into that first embrace.

published in Kindling, Carte Blanche Anthology 2015









The radio crackles on the windowsill,
you can’t hear voices nor tunes for static,
a bent hanger’s an ariel,
dust and lint make us cough.
Two black Singers

squat on each bench,
tie us by a thick cable
to a cat’s cradle of wires
just above our heads, held up with string.
We’ve each got a Walls Ice Cream box

with bobbins of black, the template,
one pair of pinking shears, packets
of thick machine needles.
The boxes are labelled, for argument’s sake: Betty,
Doris, Amerjit, Anita, Duska and me.

I love that cat’s tongue feel
of the underside before you turn it.
I wonder if he felt that way
when he made the first hand
from rough clay?

Course, he didn’t have to
overlock the edges;
he probably just pinched it like pie crust.
In winter I’m all fingers and thumbs,
summer, it’s easy and sweet –

my old machine turns round the leather
like it’s churning butter.
Mr Braithwaite hasn’t got a clue, says:
Just do the gloves, girls,
just give me the gloves.

I wonder
what would happen
if I made a hand
with only four fingers ?








Poem in which I bring back the dead

Names have power, I breathe his
resuscitate it’s vowels and consonants.
I wear his thick winter socks, he’s keeping me warm –
pluck his guitar and whistle his tunes
so he can be heard in all over the house.
Letters arrive addressed to him –
he’s alive on somebody’s list.
He’s in another country drinking wine:
I recognise that out-of-season hotel –
the mist around him, how it all grows faint
at the border where travellers meet or miss –
I’ll bring my passport, his watch and wait.

published Poetry Prescription, commissioned by NCLA 2015









Next of Kin

Once, each start of term,
I’d fill in the slip.
Every emergency covered,
numbers to be called if, god forbid,
my children fell ill or had accidents:
mother at home, waiting at the end of a line
to be pulled in.

Now as I fill in the application
I mull over the question,
google it – yes, son
is acceptable next of kin
for me.

I must let him know
and hope he hasn’t broken his phone
left it in a club, lost the charger
or changed his number.

As I swim up and down, keeping fit,
staying alive, I conjure
the circumstances: knocked off her bike,
an asthma attack, fell down stairs, god forbid,
………………….until I can’t breathe
swallowing water at the thought of it.

from Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman, Red Squirrel Press, 2015