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3 poems by Mark Russell

A Brief History of the Earth

I set out for a walk with my wife Penelope and our dog Jonathan Swift, all

of us wearing our sunglasses. Jonathan Swift always makes a great fuss

about his. He gives no consideration to the effort and ingenuity we applied

to have them made, but as Penelope likes to point out, he is a dog, so we

have to accord him a degree of leniency. By the time we reach the track

running beside Auchendarach Farm, it is dark and cold and the wind

grumbles in a baying baritone I’ve never heard before. I look around to ask

Penelope if she wants to turn back, but she and Jonathan Swift are

nowhere to be seen. I call their names, but the wind whips them away. A

man in a long black puffer jacket stands in the next field. I climb over the

fence. He stares intensely at the ground. ‘Are you all right?’ I say. ‘It’s

happening,’ he says. ‘What is?’ I say. He sways as if he’s reached the edge

of a cliff. ‘Stand back,’ he says. I can see a leash with the initials ‘JS’ in

his hand. ‘This wasn’t here yesterday,’ he says. I try to tug the leash from

him but his grip is firm. ‘What wasn’t?’ I say. ‘I’m sorry about your wife.’

He hands me a silver brooch. ‘I managed to grab this before she fell in,’ he

says. It’s the brooch Penelope’s mother left in her will. ‘We’d better get

out of here,’ he says. I feel the ground growl and shake and hear the man

say ‘Woops’. I look up and he’s vanished. One of his shoes is wedged into

the ground, its heel pointing skywards. The leash lies at my feet. I can’t

work it out. Everything else looks so normal.


It was the most exciting Microsoft Teams meeting since April when

Elvira, the host, had forgotten to remove her husband’s boxer shorts from

the radiator behind her. Ben had clearly been drinking, though nobody

really minded because of the issue with his ex-partner. ‘It’s just one

sentence. I can’t accept the idea that nobody is able to offer it a meaning,’

he said. We all looked down at page 365. Yevgeni and Marilyn nodded.

Devisha shook her head, while Violine rubbed her chin. Agnieszka’s eyes

looked down and right. It was obvious she was on her phone. Grace’s

camera was off, but we could hear her grinding her teeth. ‘I have asked Dr

Dreschler and her team in Krakow, but they have no idea,’ Astrid said.

Irene sent a note in the Chat to Freda. ‘Irene, how many times? We can all

see the Chat,’ Elvira said. Freda smiled and took a swig of coffee. ‘Surely

somebody knows what it means,’ Irene said, trying to take the initiative

away from Elvira. ‘It’s not as if it’s an ancient text or anything.’

Everybody looked up. There was a long silence. ‘Irene,’ Amy began

without continuing. Freda switched herself to mute, but we could see she

was laughing. ‘Has anybody any ideas about the way forward?’ Elvira

said. ‘Twelve words,’ Ben said, at last. ‘Come on, for Christ’s sake.’ Freda

switched on her microphone, but Elvira immediately muted her. ‘Ok,’ she

said, ‘I suggest we reconvene next Tuesday. Is 9.30 all right for

everybody?’ Freda was no longer smiling. She pressed her keyboard

several times. Yevgeni and Marilyn logged off. Freda waved her arms

furiously. Agnieszka looked up. Water rose from underneath Freda. It was

like she was in a slowly filling tank. Elvira unmuted her, but it was too

late. Freda’s screen was blank.


Connor took a look around the restaurant. Every table was occupied by a

single man. Some were on their phones; one or two, like him, looked

around and occasionally smiled; some twitched nervously and sipped from

their wine or water; several looked at their watches, called out for waiting

staff, stood and sat back down with harrumphs. After 70 or 80 minutes, the

man on the next table joined him. ‘Valentine,’ he said, holding out his

hand. Connor shook it and they began to talk. Little things at first. Where

they were from, what team they supported, what they did for a living. In a

matter of minutes, the other men moved their tables over. There was a

plumber, policeman, teacher, and refuse collector; an accountant, a lawyer,

a chemistry lecturer from the local university, an ex-infantryman down on

his luck, and a pastry chef named Lou; a crewman from a deep sea trawler,

two lorry drivers from Estonia (who didn’t seem to know each other, a

source of great mirth to all), and a lawnmower salesman; three of the men

were unemployed: one had been in a succession of cleaning jobs, one had

been made redundant from a car factory that closed down and moved to

Belarus, and one lived with his mum and wouldn’t be drawn on his

employment history. Connor couldn’t hear what everybody was saying

because so many were far away, the table having grown to cover most of

the floor space. Small talk soon ran out, and there was a moment’s silence.

‘It’s my birthday.’ The men looked around to see who had said this. ‘I’m

46.’ It was a round-faced man with a comb-over. He stood and raised his

glass. He was short-limbed with an average sized trunk, and stacked

shelves in Sainsbury’s. Two more men stood, with shocked expressions on

their faces. The man directly opposite Connor rocked back in his seat and

reached into his inside pocket. There was a little pushing and shoving over

by the stairs to the street level entrance, but it died down. Eventually,

everybody was on their feet, glasses in hands. ’38,’ the plumber said. ’59,’

a man with a thin moustache said. It was everybody’s birthday. ‘Do you

think this is all we have in common?’ Lou whispered to Connor. The PA

system kicked in with Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’. The men drank

and sang and danced and replaced ‘sisters’ with ‘brothers’ as loud as their

lives would let them. Connor took a look around the restaurant. ‘This is the

greatest night of my life,’ he said.


Mark Russell’s most recent book is o (the book of gatherings) with Red Ceilings. He won the 2020 Magma Poetry Judge’s Prize, and his poems have appeared in Tears in the Fence, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Blackbox Manifold, and elsewhere.


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