An Eighty Percent Chance of Pain

I was asked, out of the blue, to do some poetry for Mother’s Day, my first real grown-up paid-for gig. My relationship with my mother is distant, to say the least. There was a lot of confusion about my whole family while I was growing up, many myths and legends and deliberate obfuscation. So I wrote this, about that kind of chaos and ran it by a friend who has a family. We’d been talking earlier that day. Something she said gave me the key to the thing, the eighty percent line.

She said there were tears in her eyes by the time she’d finished reading and not because it was so rubbish. It was quite hard to write it. It’s quite difficult to perform. It needs plenty of pauses and when you’re somewhere loud that’s not always comfortable, leaving the audience to their own devices. In case anyone is confused, some of it is true, like anything. Some of it isn’t. It’s a poem. Not a documentary. But to my friend, sorry. I didn’t mean you to cry.



An Eighty Percent Chance of Pain


cb chickens 1961My mother lives in a nursing home.

My mother was afraid of guns

Or what they did.

She was born in a time of black and white

Photos and Spitfires and the Blitz on Bristol

And burning warehouses

And the sky red as she left for school

In the morning,

The scholarship girl at a steam-haunted country station.

The red was fire. The red was the death of a city.

Not a shepherd’s promise

But it never was.

Red sky at night was shepherd’s delight

Red sky in the morning was shepherd’s warning

Although who he was warning is moot.

Maybe me. She went to London.

She trained as a nurse.

She had sharp elbows and a sharp tongue

And hard fists. As I learned.

Actually that’s not even vaguely true.

She never used her fist.

She used the ball of her hand.

She would take me by the wrist.

She used her left hand for this

Dragging me off balance

And hit me in the side of my head

With the ball of her right hand.

It didn’t leave a bruise.

She worked in an Old People’s Home then.

Other people have other mothers.

That one was mine. It was because

I looked like my father, I think.

I found a photograph when I was in my twenties.

It was summer, after university.

I went to my mother’s house with a girlfriend.

One hot afternoon while we were wondering

If there was enough time to go upstairs

We looked through a box of old photographs,

Concluded that there wasn’t and found me,

Standing next to a waterfall I’d never been to

In front of a green lagoon I’d never seen

With a woman with a floral, elaborate,

Large swimming costume

Large as in the amount of skin it covered.

It was not large.

She was not large.

I had no recollection

Of ever having had this photograph taken

For a good reason. It was not me.

It was my father, the father my mother hated.

We never knew how much was true.

She said that he had been born in Australia.

He wasn’t. I found that out in two hours

In Somerset House as it used to be

At end of the Strand 30 years ago.

Something else we can’t mention.

She claimed he was a bigamist,

That she had tried to divorce him

But you can’t divorce people

You’re not married to;

In fifteen minutes on a mobile phone

On the internet last week, a man in a pub

Discovered that if my father was a bigamist then

He was using a different name.

Only one marriage was recorded to that man.

Other people have other mothers;

That one was mine.

We had to move abruptly

When my father was briefly imprisoned

Not for bankruptcy as I thought as a child

But for contempt of court, not meeting

The payments on the money he owed

Which even as a bankrupt you have to do

If you earn anything. And he did.

He always earned something.

Quite a lot, it seemed.

He was running two families

For eleven years. Two houses. Two mortgages.

His cars seemed quite modest. Ford Anglias

On the firm as people said in those days.

I last saw him driving a gold-painted Mk II Jaguar

The back seat filled with carpet of questionable provenance.

He’d run off with a hairdresser in Andover.


Four years later he died

Still causing trouble to the living.

He had a heart attack at the wheel of his car.

A different car. An Audi on the firm again.

And even after he was dead he drove his car

Into three other parked cars.

At some speed, apparently.

According to the coroner.

Other people have other families;

That was mine.

I talked for three quarters of an hour today

To a friend a quarter of a world away.

She’s a mother but not of any child of mine.

I asked ‘what’s it like? You’ve got a son.

What’s it like when he won’t talk to you?’

How do you do it? How do you get on?

How do you care? How do you love this person,

Who says they hate you? How do you care

And love and try to keep on and do it again?

And again? And then again?

She answered very simply: you just do.

But there’s an eighty percent chance of pain.

I thought I’d misheard her. The line

Kept cutting in and out on Skype

Those five or seven or ten thousand miles.

Much of the time it sounded as if she

Was using a bucket for purposes

We couldn’t discuss.

She assured me she wasn’t.

I wasn’t either but there we were.

I didn’t hear you I said

Can you say that again?

Yes, you heard what I said, she said.

There’s an eighty percent chance of pain.

Other people have other friends;

That one is mine.

This isn’t a Hallmark card.

I don’t know the gold standard

Of motherhood. I have no secrets

To impart to you on this

Or pretty much anything else.

My mother’s performance;

If I were a schoolmaster

I would mark it four out of ten.

Must try harder. Attention wanders.

But I would not write ‘see me.’

Not now. Not then.

Other people have other mothers;

This one was mine.

Sometimes I still remember a time

When my head didn’t come up

To the level of a fencepost.

We walked past Star’s field.

Star was a horse with a white blaze

On his forehead

In a village we’d just moved to.

Another move. Another village far from here.

You can’t go there now.

We walked along a path, over a stile made of stone,

One big stone set on edge in the earth

At the end of the path a wooden gate nearest our house

Our new house on the estate that would eat

All of these fields by the time we left again.

Other people have other villages;

This one was mine.

Memories play tricks.

Memories tell lies.

There can’t have been dandelions

And cold at the same time.

Or can there?

Maybe there can.

Some people have other memories;

These are mine.

I remember my mother’s hand

Holding mine.

I remember her sheepskin coat

And the smell of perfume,

An afternoon sunset, Star’s field and dandelions

And for once feeling safe.

Some people have other memories of their mothers

These are mine.

The wind’s blowing up as I walk these fields

Remembering. Clouds are coming

Up over the hill. Thinking back,

Maybe that’s how families are

For everyone. I think it’s pretty much the same

There’s always an eighty percent chance of pain.

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