Thursday 8 February 2024



(Hg, Atomic # 80)

The Cyborg

I knew there was something out there, because I heard the crack of twigs breaking underfoot. It could have been a bear of course, or a moose: some large animal of some kind. In fact the birds were taking little notice. There were some Lincoln’s sparrows lining a branch which would have flown away if a man was out there. So I took my old Steinschiesser rifle, opened the door to the cabin and stood there, staring out into the unravelling dawn.
‘Lay down, girl,’ I said to my collie, ‘Stay, stay.’
Frankie did as she was told. She remained just inside the cabin doorway, looking out towards the distant peaks with those large liquid brown eyes, alert but not showing any anxiety. There was no sound from her either, which made me even more puzzled about the identification of my visitor. If it was a man, bear or wolf out there, Frankie would have smelled it and would be growling low and steadily. Maybe, I thought, it was just a moose or a caribou, something fairly harmless?
I am not a happy killer of beasts. I feel the animals are just as entitled as I am to share what’s left of the outdoors. However, I didn’t want to get injured out of stupidity either. I let out a loud, ‘HEY!’ to scare away any timid creature and hoped that if it was a belligerent grizzly then it too might decide not to come any nearer. The sound of the twigs breaking stopped for a few seconds and then continued as if the walker had decided it was not in any danger.
The shape of a man then emerged from the line of pines. It was a fine morning, around 15 Celsius, and the sun was directly behind the person walking, or rather stumping, towards me. He was big, well-built by his stature, and came at a slow but determined pace.
‘That’s far enough,’ I called, raising the rifle level with the ground, but not right up to my shoulder. ‘What the hell do you want? This is private land.’
It wasn’t that private, it was a gold mine a few dozen miles from the conflux of Klondike-Yukon rivers. People were entitled to walk through the land on which my claim stood, but I wasn’t about to split hairs. We prospectors are very jealous of our mining rights. I wasn’t going to let some stranger nose around to see if I had a good spot. Even in these times, far from the rush and scramble of 1899, there were those who would rob you of your findings.
There was no answer from the figure, who then stepped out into a clear area of direct sunlight and thus I could see it was actually not a man or a woman. At first I thought it might be a robot, but then it seemed too well human-formed for that. A cyborg, then.
The rays of the sun glinted on his bio-plastic shoulders and I observed quite plainly its electric-ink eyes. There was a look of distress about the thing, even though I had been told cyborgs don’t feel emotion, not in the way real humans do.
‘Just stop there, where you’re standing,’ I warned. ‘Who do you belong to? Where’s your owner?’
The cyborg halted and gestured with his palms.
‘Dead. Mr Spalding’s dead.’
‘Yes, I am lucky not to be dead like him. The aircar crashed. I was thrown clear.’
‘Anyone else on board?’
‘No, only the two us.’
It was a mute point whether a machine could be considered ‘dead’ but I let that one pass. The cyborg in front of me remained standing, still staring at me with those weird electric-ink eyes. No matter how long these devices have been part of our lives, I was still uncomfortable in a one-to-one conversation with anything unhuman.
I remembered now about a news item I had heard. The name Turnbull-Spalding rang a bell. Search-and-Rescue had found the body of the businessman, homing in on an emergency signal from the aircar. What I recalled though was that the vehicle was found intact, which didn’t fit with this cyborg’s story exactly. However, I didn’t want to go into any interrogation mode. I wanted to get rid of the intruder and get back to work. Summers were short here.
‘Well, no need to tarry here – what’s the name they gave you?’
‘No need to tarry here, Cicero. You can go on to Dawson. It’s less than a hundred miles down the track. You can walk it, easily.’
‘I – I need succour. I won’t make it, otherwise.’
‘What kind of succour does a cyborg need?’
‘My bio-plastics and electronics need stimulating.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘How long have been wandering around in the wilderness?’
‘Over a month. I had a survival, pack with me, but it ran out two weeks ago.’
I studied my visitor for a while, then motioned with the rifle towards an outhouse where I kept my fuel logs.’
‘See that tree stump over by the shed? You go and sit on that. What do you need for your electrics?’
‘Mercury. Not too much. Just enough to excite and revive the synapses I rely on to keep refreshed. Do you have anything like an antique thermometer, or barometer? You’d have to break it though.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Now you just trot on over to that stump. I want to see you sitting still.’
Cicero did as he was told, though he hardly trotted. He clumped over the spot and sat down. Each movement seemed to be laboured. Clearly his system was not in good shape. I’m no bio-engineer, so I couldn’t tell whether he was close to seizing up. He could of course be faking it, but again, I couldn’t see what there was for him to gain by doing so. If there was someone in the woods, managing him in the hope of robbing me, they would be disappointed. My claim produces enough gold to keep me in supplies and maybe a few small luxuries, but it doesn’t yield riches.
I went inside, stepping over Frankie, who then followed me into the depths of the cabin.
After I had provided the Cicero with what he wanted, the cyborg brightened up a little and said, ‘I hope you didn’t have to destroy anything to obtain the mercury? I was so desperate for succour I could have licked the back of a mirror.’
That sounded very like a joke, which surprised me. I wondered how close this cyborg was to thinking like a human. Probably he had heard a human use the phrase when imitating a cyborg. I had been told comedians mimicked everything that moved in their stand up shows.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘No damage to anything. Now, are you on your way?’
‘This Dawson, is it a large city?’
‘No, pretty small as cities go.’
‘Describe it to me.’
I was getting just a tad impatient with this machine.
‘It’s mostly wooden buildings - saloons, hotels, shops with false wooden fronts, all based on the originals from the late 1890s gold rush. The streets aren’t metalled, they’re still dust, but there’re boardwalks and . . . look, it’s a tourist town. You can buy mammoth bones and gewgaws – even gold nuggets – but there’re no cyborgs there to keep you company, which I think is what you’re asking me. This is still the wilderness out here, thank God, and I personally don’t give a damn about the rest of the world. Now are you going to get off your plastic backside and go on your way?’
Cicero turned his gaze on me. ‘No, I think I’ll stay with you.’
I frowned. ‘You’re not invited.’
‘Nevertheless, I shall stay.’
I hadn’t expected this. I wasn’t that knowledgeable about cyborgs, but I understood they did what you told them to do.  Of course, I was not the master of this one. He was very big and no doubt immensely strong. I was left wondering what choices I had. I couldn’t actually force him to leave, if he remained stubborn. I could indeed call the authorities to have him removed by force, but that would mean my short summer interrupted by a bunch of outsiders. I didn’t like outsiders. They tended to ask a lot of stupid questions and hang around longer than you wanted them to.
‘If you stay here, it’ll be outside my cabin. You can’t enter, you realise that. If you do, I shall have to shoot you.’
‘With that old weapon I saw?’
‘It might be old, but it’s powerful enough to make goddamn mess of your circuits.’
He nodded, sagely. ‘This is true. I shall remain without.’
‘That’s what I meant.’
I called Frankie, who came trotting to my side.
‘See here, Frankie and me, we don’t like strangers. You’re a stranger. Not just that, you’re a foreigner, because I see by that plate on your shoulder you were put together in Japan. Moreover, you’re not even a human. You’re a damn cyborg and no one would blink an eye if I shot you to pieces. I hope you understand me?’
‘Cybernetic organism.’
‘You what?’
‘I don’t refer to you as a homosap. You are a homo sapiens sapiens. I think it would be good etiquette to refer to me by my full title.’
‘Fuck you, you heap of junk,’ I growled, ‘and strode back to the cabin, with Frankie at my heels. ‘Etiquette?’ I said to Frankie, once we were inside. ‘Fucking etiquette?’
I could tell by Frankie’s look that she agreed with me.
For the next few days I got on with my work, which is artisanal  mining for small amounts of gold. 
The way it works is this. You search the hills and valleys of the wilderness for alluvial deposits with gold in them – naturally, that’s the hardest part – then when you find a likely source you mix those deposits with mercury which allows the gold and mercury to form an amalgam – gold is easily amalgamated with mercury, though I don’t know why – then you heat the mercury until it evaporates and that leaves the gold behind to be scraped up, or ladled up, depending on how lucky you are with the amount of gold in the ground you’re working. This method of extracting the precious heavy yellow metal is used by many, many small-time miners all over the world.
I really don’t know how I came to live out here in the middle of nowhere, where the winters are killers and the summers full of wild animals like grizzlies, wolves and more recently even cougars which have drifted north-west to the Yukon from Saskatchewan. I had a wife once, but after she died all the ambition went out of me, to be replaced with a yearning to be away from civilization. Once I’d let the forests and mountains into my heart, there was no getting rid of them. I shall stay here until I either die or they come and get me, and take me to a place where I can jabber along with other seniles.
Prospecting was a good excuse for coming here. It’s not the gold that brought me here, it was something else, something intangible and without a name. The poet Robert Service knew what he was talking about when he wrote, ‘ . . . it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, so much as finding the gold.’ What I think he meant was, the interesting part is the looking for the gold in a place where stillness is the precious commodity and the forests hold the beauty. Once you’ve found gold, that’s okay too, but it doesn’t fill you with euphoria. In fact at first there’s a falling off in one’s emotions, a sort of sadness about it all. Then you realise, all right, it’s fine. I can take this stuff out of the ground and it’ll provide me with enough to keep me here.
The next morning, after a breakfast of sourdough bread and some cheese, and coffee of course, I went out with Frankie at my heels and strolled down to my claim at the bottom of the slope. I deliberately did not look towards the outhouse in case the cyborg was still there. I expected him to be gone, walking the track and forest path to Dawson.
In the middle of the day I went back, and groaned, seeing Cicero standing outside the cabin watching for my return. I ignored him and went into my cabin, to see if he had been inside. However, nothing appeared to have been disturbed. I settled down to continue carving a model of a bear out of a wapiti bone. I sold such scrimshaws to shopkeeper in Dawson for a pittance. A man must keep his hands and mind busy if he’s to stay sane. Later I went back to my hut at the claim to extract the gold from the earth deposits. The result was much as expected. I was never going to be a rich man, but things were jogging along and I didn’t foresee any changes looming.
For three weeks I managed to keep the cyborg at bay. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in that head of his? Did his circuits have the capability of producing a state of boredom? Could he just switch off all his power, allow himself to slip into a state of dormancy, while he waited for me to crack? How much of him was human and how much machine? Did he have a real heart or brain, or were they manufactured synthetically? – no doubt that parts of him were real in the sense that they were organic, but not from the chest or head of a human. Maybe his organic bits came from an animal, like a pig or a cow? Which begged the question, did pigs and cows have emotions, dreams, desires? Hell, I could go on forever surmising this and that. I was no philosopher either.
Perhaps he was able to stand there like an old steam engine and simply let the elements bring him to his knees? Or maybe, just maybe, he was fuming inside – angry, bitter – and was a spark away from felling me with one of those large iron fists?
It all came to a head one morning down at the claim. I had just finished shovelling grit and stones into a barrow, when I heard loud snorting sound quite close by. When I looked up, there was a blond grizzly just a hundred metres away. It was coming straight for me and it looked mad for some reason. 
My rifle was twenty metres away. Frankie went down on her haunches, her hackles came up and she began barking and snarling at the oncoming beast. There was no use fleeing. You can no more outrun a bear than you can a horse. It never fails to surprise me how big these guys are. This one was over two metres tall on his hind legs and he must have weighed six-hundred pounds. I tipped the gavel out of the barrow and held it up on its wheel in front of me, using it as a shield. No barrow was going to stop this bear though. It’s eyes were blazing with wrath and I knew one swipe would send my makeshift shield flying away from me. My legs went weak with fear and I have to say I wet myself. I was a dead man, I was absolutely sure.
Then suddenly, out of the treeline a figure came loping to intervene between me and the beast. It was Cicero, who placed himself squarely in front of me and when the bear reached him, he struck it with his fist on the snout. The bear squealed in pain and swung a great paw full of claws at the cyborg. Cicero however had planted himself firmly in the damp mast of the forest floor and though the jolt rocked him, he did not go down. He struck again, a mighty blow to the side of the bear’s head. The creature whined again and this time shook itself, turned, dropped on all fours, and galloped from the scene. I was left with very wet underwear and a sense of relief that almost made me wilt in my shoes.
‘Thank you,’ I croaked, when I could speak. ‘You saved my life.’
‘Perhaps,’ replied Cicero, turning those electric-ink eyes onto me. ‘One never knows, though. He might have halted at the last moment.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Yes, I too doubt it. And now you smell of urine.’
‘Ah, that, yes, too much coffee. It’s a diuretic.’
‘A diuretic. That would explain it,’ said Cicero, his features giving nothing away.
That night I let Cicero into the cabin, though having thought over the incident in the day I wondered why the bear had attacked me. There were no cubs to be seen and the beast had come to me, rather than me surprising it on the trail. Also, the cyborg had been very quickly on the scene given that the cabin was a good way away. It was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Cicero had engineered the whole episode.
‘Do you want any mercury?’ I asked him, as Frankie, lay dutifully on the rug, glaring up at the cyborg. 
“Yes, a small cupful would be excellent, thank you.’ He looked down at Frankie, adding, ‘I don’t think your hound likes me.’
‘She’s not used to strangers, that’s all. And she gets jealous whenever I talk with someone else. She expects to be the centre of my world – and in a way, she is.’
‘Will she bite me? It will hurt her teeth.’
‘No, she’s not stupid.’
A cupful of mercury. That was a lot. That first time, I had given Cicero a much smaller quantity. However, he had been standing out in the open for nearly a month now. Maybe his circuitry was corroding? How was I to know? I didn’t even know how he got the stuff inside him. Anyway, once I had eaten and was imbibing of a whisky or two, we got to talking. He asked me about Dawson and how a city came to be out here in the wilderness. I explained about the 1899 gold rush, how thousands got the fever and flooded north up the trails and rivers, many of them dying on the way.
‘There were clerks who had worked in banks, schoolteachers, lords from England, schoolboys still with their caps and blazers on, train drivers, coal miners, rogues and tramps, even Indians – you name it, once they got the fever they walked out of their homes and jobs, and came north towards Alaska hoping to make themselves rich. Some of them did, but mostly it was the saloon owners, the brothels, the hardware stores, the boat builders – these were they who made their fortunes. It wasn’t as exciting of course, to be selling goods and wares, rather than to be out there seeking gold, but people’s priorities are different. Those who came seeking gold were also seeking adventure. You don’t find adventure in a hardware store, but you do get steadily richer if the time and place are right.’
‘Fascinating. And only two centuries ago?’
‘But what about law and order? Surely it was chaos? I know humans well enough to realise that when there are crowds, or mobs of them, and they get that excited, especially where money is concerned, there can be violence and mayhem.’
‘This is sadly true, but there were the Mounties, that’s the Mounted Police, up here to keep order. Not many, that’s a fact, but they were commanded by a sergeant called Steel. Sergeant Steel. Sounds as if I’m making the name up, doesn’t it? But I’m not. Sergeant Steel was police, judge, jury and prison warden all rolled into one. Happily, he was a fair man, but hard as iron. An iron man with the name Steel. Could be one of your lot. A robot.’
Cicero stiffened in his chair and exhibited annoyance. 
‘I am not a robot. Robots are simply machines. Yes, I am a device of sorts, but I have organic materials, which place me above robots. My status is superior to a common collection of metals.’
Whoa. Touched a nerve there. So this cyborg did have emotions of a sort. Indignation and anger, plus a sensitivity to his correct place on the chain of being. Well, that was a little eye-opener for me. I would have to watch my tongue in future. He was after all a powerful device. One blow of his fist would crush my skull.
‘Okay,’ I continue, ‘I accept that. But on the theme of Sergeant Steel, he was completely incorruptible man in a place where gold ruled the hearts and minds of most other men. The stories of him are legend. He wanted none of the unlawful miner’s courts that had held sway in the California gold stampede of 1849, where men were lynched for very little and the gun was law. 
‘When he first laid down his rules Sergeant Steel jailed a miner for hanging out his washing on a Sunday, a day which in that era people considered it necessary to keep holy. Bylaws were in place in many towns and cities to make sure it damn well was. Don’t ask me why. When someone asked him quietly, why such a harsh sentence for a little infringement? Why not a fine? Steel replied “If I imprison a man for hanging out his washing, it gives them cause to wonder what sort of sentence they’ll get for a major crime.” 
‘In another case, he fined a miner a thousand dollars for a misdemeanour. The convicted man, who owned a successful claim that produced gold, simply laughed and said, “I don’t mind, sergeant. I’ve got that in my right-hand pocket, as we speak.” And Sergeant Steel immediately came back with, ‘. . . and six months in the stockade. Maybe you’ve got that in your left-hand pocket?
‘They say that when he gave his opening public speech to the would-be prospectors, shopkeepers, gamblers, bawdy house people, he didn’t want to crease his starched uniform and was carried out by four of his men and planted on the platform.’
After his ingestion of mercury, Cicero’s eyes, indeed his whole face, glowed. He looked more ‘alive’ than I’d ever seen him.
‘Sergeant Steel sounds a very interesting person. These days the policing is mostly done by cyborgs like myself. However, they don’t have the same powers this man seemed to have.’
‘It was all due to being out here in the wilderness – you can get away with such informalities when the stiff collars are thousands of miles away. You seem to like that stuff, the quicksilver? It does you good, eh?’
‘Quicksilver! What a beautiful name for it. You mean, the mercury.’
‘Yes, I mean the mercury.’
‘Well, it’s the same to me as that stuff you carry in that leather bag on a string around your neck.’
He pointed to my small pouch of starter yeast for my sourdough bread. I touched the pouch. ‘How did you know about this?’
‘I’ve seen you through the window. You use it when you make your food. Is it precious?’
‘It is to me, and any other miner who gets locked in a cabin for the winter. It’s a live fungus that helps to leaven my bread.’
‘Live? Oh, that word. It makes me so envious. Even a bit of clay-like substance can call itself “live” – while I? I am a concoction of bits of metal and biological plasti-tissue. Yet I, who can play chess, do calculus, ride a bike, climb mountains, punch bears on the nose, cannot. I am not permitted to call myself “live”, though I am more alive than many organisms made of tissue, blood and bone.’
Cicero sounded deeply bitter over what I would call merely a question of semantics.
Over the next few weeks, Cicero made himself useful. He joined me at the claim and his muscle power – shovelling the Yukon into barrows and wheeling it to my furnace – proved that indeed he was more alive than those who claimed the word. He was no dunce either and we discussed many subjects, from art to politics, from literature to sport, from music to mountain climbing. His questions and answers were well-considered and I came to believe my own intellect inferior to his. Certainly he could argue most subjects without getting heated or emotional, which many humans find very difficult. He was a natural debater and could take either side of a subject and make you believe he was right in his assessment.
One evening he asked me about gold mining in general. I told him there were still large companies who mined gold, but there remained, two hundred years after the last gold rush, several millions of solitary miners making a living at the prospecting and mining the dense yellow metal.
‘Not as many as at the beginning of this century,’ I told him, ‘when there were ten to fifteen million small-time miners in the world, many of them women with children. In those days, when there were fewer federations of states, over 70 countries were home to such miners. At that time, 15 percent of the world’s gold was produced by men like me, using mercury to form an amalgam with gold and then heating the mercury to make the separation.’
‘Mercury,’ he murmured. ‘To me, that is the metal which is precious, not the gold.’
Frankie had got used to Cicero’s voice now and she looked up because the tone had changed quite dramatically.
I frowned. ‘Speaking of which, my stock of mercury is mysteriously low. You’ve been imbibing, haven’t you?’
He straightened in his chair, which he sat in only to be level with me when I sat in mine. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, I do take the odd dribble, to keep me primed. Have I been taking too much?’
‘Well, I’ve never had to keep count before now, so I don’t know what too much is – however, we can go into Dawson tomorrow and buy a drum. I need to sell the gold we’ve taken out anyway. You can make enquiries there about what you should do, now your master has been killed in the accident. If you’re up for sale, I can purchase you. I’m not as poor as my circumstances imply. We should keep it legal.’
‘Oh, you must go in alone,’ he came back at me. ‘I can’t go – and you must not mention me.’
‘And the reason for that?’
He let out what would be the equivalent of a human sigh.
‘I lied to you. There was no crash. I killed Mr Spalding.’
I sat there, stunned for a moment, then gathered my thoughts.
‘You mean you killed him accident.’
‘No, I killed him on purpose. They will know I was on board the aircar. I’m sure there were cameras on the craft. Where can you go these days, without being imaged. They will have my imago.’
‘Here,’ I said. ‘No cameras here.’ I shook my head in disappointment. ‘You murdered your master.’
Cicero shook his head and the gesture was almost human.
‘Now we come to it. Semantics. According to the scientific label placed on cyborgs by your own race, I am not a living creature. I am a man-made device, closer to a robot than a human. Thus, not being human I cannot murder anyone. An animal like Frankie . . .’ she lifted her head at hearing her name and stared at Cicero ‘ . . . cannot murder. A rogue vacuum cleaner cannot commit murder. Only humans can murder each other. I did not belong to Mr Spalding, I belonged to his wife. She left him, so he set out to punish her by stealing me and then ordering me to leap from the aircar while we flew over a great lake. I refused the order. Mr Spalding tried to push me out, but I pushed him instead. He died on hitting the water. The aircar then began running out of power and automatically landed itself on the beach of the lake. I left it there and began my long walk.’
I hung my head and stared at the floor.
‘I don’t know what to say or do.’
Cicero replied, ‘Then do nothing. That seems to be the best option. You cannot be blamed for doing nothing.’
‘If not legally, morally . . .’
‘Morally, it is the same. I am a device, a machine. You can’t feel morally obliged to destroy a crane that’s fallen over and crushed someone. Morals only come into it, when dealing with another human.’
And so indeed, I did nothing. I left the next morning, taking Frankie with me. She liked going to town too. There were new smells there to be investigated and the chance of meeting other dogs to make friends with or fight. Dogs need to live interesting lives too. Once in Dawson, I sold my gold, bought provisions, including a drum of mercury, and returned without mentioning Cicero to anyone. 
I’m not sure I completely agreed with his arguments and I knew that there were plenty who would happily smash him to pieces for killing a man. As a race of beings we don’t always, in fact we rarely, do anything that makes sense. We kill each other in the hundred-thousands, yet we are often appalled by a single murder. Some of us amass huge fortunes we can never in ten lifetimes spend, yet leave others to starve in gutters. There are those of us who own houses with twenty bedrooms, while in the same town there are less fortunate people sleeping in the street. There is no sense to it all and indeed, Cicero’s arguments would convince no one I knew, especially those whose politics worked on an eye-for-an-eye principle.
So, indeed I did nothing. We carried on as we had done for the whole summer, into an early autumn, then winter hit us hard. I began to notice that my new drum of mercury was going down quicker than expected. I tackled Cicero, during a game of cards one evening, knowing his craving was the culprit. I didn’t want to criticise too fiercely, since I was still a little wary of this unpredictable cyborg. Yes he had killed a man, but perhaps, just perhaps, he felt something akin to friendship for me, the human who had taken him in and given him a home. But friends had killed each other before now and Cicero did not seem to exhibit any remorse for his crime. He had never said anything or indicated in any way by his gestures that he felt guilty or sorrowful for having caused the death of Turnbull-Spalding.
‘Yes, I have been using more of the lovely quicksilver,’ he said. ‘Perhaps just a quarter of litre a day.’
‘A day?’ I cried.
‘Most likely just a quarter. Perhaps a little more.’
I really did have an addict on my hands. Locked in for the winter with junky! A cyborg who had killed his master.
‘Cicero, this can’t be good for you.’
He squirmed in his chair, making it creak.
‘But it makes me feel so good. My synapses spark, vibrate, jangle even. My brain is much clearer after a good dose. I believe my judgement improves . . .’
Definitely an alcoholic, or whatever the term is for someone, something, addicted to quicksilver.
‘You have to moderate your intake,’ I said, severely, as he fanned his cards with his nimble fingers. ‘That stuff is lethal to humans and I’m sure in small doses it might assist your system, but a litre every four days is not to be contemplated.’
‘Gin!’ he yelled, laying down a run of seven diamonds. Frankie jumped out of a deep sleep and glared at us. ‘I win again.’
It was like talking to a child. I gave up for the evening, thinking I would have to tackle him again in the morning, or at least some time when he hadn’t just guzzled my precious mercury.
A week later the temperature began to drop. The pair of us managed to get to the log pile a few metres from the cabin and we stacked up enough to last us four more days. Then one evening, just as we ran out of fuel, it fairly plummeted.
‘We’re going to freeze,’ I grumbled. ‘I’m not going out there until the temperature rises.’
‘I’ll go out,’ replied Cicero. ‘You stay in here.’
‘It’s too damn cold out there, even for a cyborg.’
He let out that imitation laugh he had been practising: the cackle that annoyed the hell out of me.
‘What? You think I’ll feel the bite of the wind? I’m 70 percent plastic and even my organic parts are melded with plastic. I’ll be fine.’
He was extremely animated this particular evening, his eyes burning like small suns. I guessed he’d been at the mercury again. I’m was certain he had increased the dose beyond his last confession of quarter of a litre a day. I was determined to put a stop to it and decided that while he was outside, I would check the level of the quicksilver in the drum. One thing Cicero would accept, was factual evidence. I was hoping to give him an amount which would alarm him, because like most addicts, he had probably deliberately not taken note of his usage. I needed to shock him into going back to the small dosages he actually needed to keep his circuits and connections in prime condition. 
Cicero was now quite prized by me. We got on extremely well together and he helped pass the lonely days with a wit and cheerfulness I could not muster on my own. I had not realised how inward-looking, detached and narrow my life had been before he arrived. Since then I had revived the enquiring mind I had owned in my youth and actually cared that I lived through another Klondike winter. I found I could share memories again and much of the bitterness had dissipated. I needed Cicero. I couldn’t let him turn himself into some kind of junkie, if that was the right word for a cyborg addict. A junkie with a mercury-clogged mind, who would be a burden not just to himself, but also to Frankie and me.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘You get the logs.’
I watched him go to the door and out into the silent frozen night, where the stars were so clear they looked close enough to touch. Firstly, I took the time to feed Frankie, who had been waiting patiently for her supper while the two bipeds played their usual evening game of cards. I have to admit I do forget her when I’m trying to beat that tin man at gin rummy.
Once I’d given Frankie the left-overs of my own supper, I went to the back of the cabin, where I kept the drum of mercury. 
Opening the lid I was horrified to see that it was almost empty. Cicero must at that moment be sloshing around inside with liquid, silver metal. Then suddenly, staring down into that drum, a terrible thought struck me like a blow in the stomach. My brain must have been fogged by too many days locked in the cabin not to realise it sooner. I remembered now why I always brought the drum of mercury up from the shed on the site of the claim. 
It was because mercury freezes in very low temperatures.
The freezing point of quicksilver is -38.83 Celcius.
Outside, in the yard where the Cicero had gone to collect logs, it was 40 degrees below.
I ran back to the front room and tried to look through the window, but it was iced over and its visibility too poor. I put on a pile of clothes, covered most of my face, and then with Frankie staring at me as if I were crazy, I opened the door and stepped out into the yard. Cicero was standing perfectly still, one arm bent, the closed metal hand gripping a single log. Even in the poor glow from the lamp behind me, its light shining through the open doorway, I could see fissures in his body. The electric-ink eyes were as dull as mountainside shale. The mouth was open in an surprised oval. 
Even as I stood there, the tall statue fell like a sawn tree, the head striking a frozen log and cracking open. I stared at my friend, lying broken in the cold crisp snow. Poor Cicero. There was nothing I could do to help him. Wild thoughts raged through my mind. Some of them even made sense. He could, perhaps, be repaired, but not out here where there were still wolves who roamed the forests and miners who were throw-backs to a far distant age. Taken to a city he would be identified and thrown on the junk heap as the killer of businessman, Maximilian Turnbull-Spalding.
Finally, before I froze to death myself, I went back inside the cabin and closed the door. 
‘It’s just you and me again, old girl,’ I said to Frankie, as I removed the coats and my fur hat.
Her liquid brown eyes gave nothing away.

Thursday 25 January 2024

 It's a while since I last blogged (if that's the correct past tense) but now I've decided to do so on a regular basis, maybe at least 4 times a year. I'm going to publish those stories on here which have been rejected a good many times by the magazines, hoping they will find a small readership on the net. The first of these stories is entitled IN WHICH POOH IS SHOT TO DEATH WHILE ROBBING A BANK. Pooh and his friends are now out of copyright. I wrote this story many years ago to amuse children on my visits to schools. Hopefully I will find a wider audience of at least six or seven on my blog pages.

In Which Pooh is Shot to Pieces

While Robbing a Bank


Garry Kilworth

We planned the raid in the basement of a downtown tenement. Pooh was holding forth, saying, ‘I see it this way, Rabbit: we go in, three of us, Eeyore takes the doors, you move to the counter and I stand (he pointed to a pencilled cross on the ground plan of the bank which we had pinned to the wall) here.’ He  put his paw on a spot under the bank clock. ‘Then I can see the whole layout: the teller and the clients, and of course, the guard. It’s my special job to cover the guard, so don’t do anything to distract me, will you?’

Eeyore looked up, briefly, from his task of cleaning the guns. His mournful expression revealed his thoughts: we had been through all this, several times, but Pooh needed to travel old paths a dozen times before he felt the knowledge was securely buried in that famous little brain. Eeyore was also aware of the extent of the danger, how desperate this enterprise was. Pooh was a creature of instinct, unable to view possible future consequences. It was his reaction to instinct which led to our downfall, but I attach no blame to the bear. He had been created thus and the fault lay elsewhere.

‘That’s fine, Pooh,’ I heard myself saying, ‘we seem to have it all worked out now.’ 

I was watching Piglet – poor, unhappy, nervous piglet – playing with a rosery he had found in the corner of the basement, counting the beads and frequently losing his place. Piglet was our wheels man, but I had arranged for Owl to sit in the car with him. Owl couldn’t drive of course, his anatomy not being fit for such a task. Piglet had trouble too, even though the vehicle had been modified to enable use with trotters. Piglet was Piglet, good behind a wheel, but very, very nervous if you know what I mean. Owl was a calming influence. I was just thankful that Tigger was not one of the gang. Kanga had taken him and Roo to Florida some time back, thinking to get work in Disneyland as guides or something. Tigger would have been too gung-ho, would have been bouncing all over the bank, would have begun blasting at the flicker of an eyelash. We couldn’t afford to take the risk on his excited temperament.

I had seen the notices: Bank Robbery is a Federal Offence, Punishable by Life imprisonment. We all knew the possible consequences, and God knows, we didn’t want to hurt anyone, but what the hell was left to us? We had tried everything else, in England, France, Australia and finally, the land of opportunity and cartoons, where characters such as ourselves might find openings in the movie industry, these United States. We had chosen a bad time to migrate, however. There was a recession on, the Wall Street index had slumped so badly people were wondering if it had a prolapsed spinal column and the movie business was suffering from investment malnutrition. I mean, I felt I had a responsibility towards this motley bunch of lovable characters and all my efforts at finding some sort life for us had ended in failure.

Pooh was still talking and reached out for his honey jar instinctively. Piglet cried, ‘Pooh, y-y-you promised . . .’ making the bear pause and frown at his little friend. He stopped his speech in mid-sentence and let his paw drop to his side, the protestations forming on his lips, knowing he had vowed to kick the obsessive habit, if just for the period of the robbery. 

‘I wasn’t . . .’ he started to say, but Eeyore snapped a gun breech shut, loudly, the sound startling the whole room. The donkey looked up and said in a gloomy tone, ‘Sorry,’ before putting the oiled weapon down carefully on the newspapers he had spread to keep the carpet from getting stained.

Pooh came and sat beside me, on the overstuffed sofa. 

‘There’s too much sentiment in the world, Rabbit– and not enough compassion,’ he said.

I agreed with him for once. I mean, that schmaltzy goodbye at the end of Pooh Corner might be fine for some, but where did it leave the animals of Hundred Acre Wood? Where did we go after that? We couldn’t stay in the forest. There was nothing there for us. The end to our story had not been written in sufficiently definite terms for us to know what to do with ourselves, once we had ceased gambolling through the trees. You can’t live on old, dry leaves and sentiment.

Owl come in from the kitchen. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week and his shoulders were hunched. Owl’s weighty concerns were of the type carried by those who worried about the world and its children as opposed to Eeyore’s whose interest was personal doom. Let’s face it, Eeyore held the monopoly on dreary statements in which the word VICTIM appeared in capital letters, bold type, black border round the edges.

Owl nodded at me, but kept quiet, since Pooh was still talking, though to no one in particular. Before we left England, Owl, being the most intelligent of this group of friends, had tried to help Piglet trace his ancestors and build a family tree. They started and ended with Piglet’s famous grandfather, Trespassers Will, failing in their attempts to get any further, even though there were more than one or two Williams on the gravestones in the churchyard abutting the wood. It was a bitter disappointment to Piglet, who even asked a passing sparrow if she had heard the name. ‘He was a writer,’ Piglet told the bird. ‘You can see that. He wrote his own name, or most of it. Perhaps he was interrupted before he could finish it?’ The sparrow said she would look in Highgate Cemetery where several famous authors were buried, including Karl Marx and Bram Stoker, but Piglet never heard from her again.

‘It’s doubtful T.W, was a writer of any kind,’ Owl told me privately, ‘given that Piglet’s ancestors – if of the same make-up as our friend – would have the attention span of a butterfly. Yes, he could obviously write his own name – the sign bears witness to that – but a whole novel or manifesto?’

I had to agree with him. He was a wonderful guy, Owly. I loved him like a brother. I loved him because he spoke good sense, and he knew, he knew the fate of each one of us was inextricably bound up with the fate of us all. He once said to me that we were like the beads of Piglet’s rosery, strung together, inseparable. When one of us suffered, we all suffered. There’s a French term for it: Folie a deux, malady of two, but it could equally apply to multiples. Heck, one of us only has to get a cold in the head and we all walk about in the dumps.

Pooh was talking too loudly again. ‘It was all too open-ended. A feeble fade-out, leaving us wondering what we were going to do now the last full stop had gone on the last sentence of the last book. Look at Alice’s adventures. She gets crowned queen and then wakes up in bed realising it was all a dream. She could get on with her normal life. We didn’t have that luxury. We were just left in limbo while that traitor Christopher Robin walked away to his normal life.’

I said, ‘That’s not quite fair, Pooh. Chris had to go. He was leaving childhood behind him. You can’t blame him for growing up.’

‘Oh, you, Rabbit. You were always his favourite,’ growled Pooh, savagely.

 Pooh almost never growled like a real bear, so I thought it best to leave him to chunter on for a while. I could have pointed out that the two books were named after him, so the idea that I was Chris’s favourite was laughable. But there was little point in arguing with him when he was in this mood. I watched  him kick a table leg and knew I was right to allow him to seethe on his own.

‘I don’t even know what I am,’ cried Pooh, his paws high in the air. ‘What am I?’ For a moment I thought there were tears in his eyes, except I knew they were glass so that was not possible. ‘Am I a toy? An animated toy? It’s all so vague. It doesn’t say, anywhere, exactly what I am, or what you all are.’ He choked back the full force of his anger. ‘Christopher knew,’ there was resentment in his tone. ‘He knew what he was, all right  - a real flesh and blood creature. Oh, yes. No worries there, for the wonderful Christopher Robin. But the rest of us were just left in a state of hollow ignorance. Bloody right.’

Piglet was staring at his best friend with wide terrified eyes, his little front trotters shaking so much they were clicking against each other. 

I decided I had to intervene again, even if it meant a shouting match.

I spoke quietly. ‘Have you ever stopped to think, Pooh. Do you ever, stop to think? What are we all doing on this desperate enterprise? Good grief, robbing a bank? Thieves, perhaps murderers if we have to use these weapons Eeyore got from us in Chicago. You aren’t helping, you know. We’re all in this together and if you lose it now, we’re done for. Each and every one of us will end up with nothing and our pockets and a jail sentence to boot. We’re relying on you to stay strong. I think you can. I think you’re made of stern stuff, that’s who I think you are. A bear of little brain, perhaps, but one with a strong backbone, a bear with grit and full of purpose. I admire you.’

He calmed down and looked contrite. ‘Am I really? Grit?’

‘Yes, you are. A true friend. Solid and steadfast.’

‘Thank you, Rabbit. I’m sorry, I truly am.’

Eeyore muttered, ‘When you two have stopped kissing each other . . .’ and handed me a thirty-eight, modified for a rabbit’s paws and fully loaded. ‘I’ll use the machine gun,’ he said. ‘I want them to remember Eeyore. This donkey’s going out in style. All my life I’ve been full of self-pity, whining and moaning about my condition, but by the lush green grass on the old millpond’s bank, they’ll know Eeyore’s been in town.’

Piglet cried, ‘Wha . . . what does he mean? I want them to remember? We are going to pull this off, aren’t we?’ His tone was full of anxiety.

I wish then I could have painted the picture for him, of just how it might go, so that we had the choice of dropping the idea there and then and letting it lay where it fell. Even then I think we might still have gone ahead. We had come to the end of the line. There was nothing more for us. Our fate was inextricably bound to the idea that we would either end up rich, dead or in prison.

How it went in the end.

How Piglet panicked once the alarms started ringing and despite Owl’s protest roarrf away from the scene, only to bury the Chevy in the concrete corner of 2nd and 30th, killing them both instantly. 

How Pooh, once a junky always a junky, took his eyes off the guard, when the word ‘money’ was mentioned, thinking he had heard something else. 

And Eeyore, spraying the ceiling with a whole mag of slugs, careful not to hit anyone because that was Eeyore’s way.

And then Pooh – Pooh, lying on the cold tiles, blasted to pieces by the agitated bank guard, an ear by the door, a leg torn off and guts spilling out through the wounds ripped in his stomach by the guard’s forty-five. 

Pooh, his voice full of shocked surprise, saying, ‘Jesus and Mary, look what’s coming out of my belly – common fluff and sawdust?’ 

Then he said, ‘Rabbit, get going, get out of here. Don’t worry about me.’

One of the customers leaned over his scattered remains and cried, ‘It’s Winnie-the-Pooh!’

‘Don’t call me Winnie,’ croaked the bear. ‘I hate that name.’

We had had our good times, in the Hundred Acre Wood, when none of us knew what was in the stars for us. Blustery days, campion days, days full of bees and honey, when searches for the Small were organazised by Pooh and stornery twee rhymes filled the flower-scented air. Days when the wind got tangled in the trees and days when weak winter suns formed a haze of light behind the wickerwork of branches. Gone, all gone. Every one.

I told all this to Kanga, when she came visiting me in the slammer. I saw the sympathy behind her eyes and I had to look away because there was a lump in my throat. But what do you do, when it’s all over, no hope of another book and no one needs you because you’re out of date, too old-fashioned.

Afterwards, I sat in my cell and thought about Pooh’s last words, as he lay strewn over the floor of that damned bank:

‘At least this is a real ending, Rabbit. I suppose that’s all we could have hoped for – what we all wanted, deep down. It certainly wasn’t the money.’

Now we’ve written our story, without any help from anyone else. Some may call it a tale of failure, but when you consider Eeyore’s suggested title - In Which Pooh Discovers that Death is a Happy Ending – well, you can see we look on it as a success story. I didn’t use Eeyore’s suggestion because I am

 the author and the author always gets to choose his own title. Ha!

Anyway, we were all involved and we all went down together. Even Tigger and Roo, who were in Miami when they heard the news. The pair of them went on a rampage, busting up the town. I hear Tigger bounced some seventeen cops before they took him down in a hail of lead. I wish I could have been there to see it.

And wherever Tigger is now, and Pooh, Piglet and Owl, well, I just know it’s better than that misty limbo we found ourselves after Pooh Corner.

Maybe they’ve found that elusive heffalump at last?


Monday 18 July 2022


(Personal Journeys) Douglas Ciluird

Crab-claw Books

Limited Edition ___ of 50


This one is for Malcolm Edwards

Songs of the Earth, Sea and Sky

Copyright © Garry Kilworth 2022 Published in 2022 by Crab-claw Books. All rights reserved.

The right of Douglas Ciluird to
be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First Edition

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or locals, or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.

Crab-claw Books

38 Tropicana II Las Palomas La Herradura Almunecar Granada Spain

Author’s Note

I have written five books of poems, including this one, plus 76 novels and 11 collections of short stories. I can see there’s a danger here of quantity overshadowing quality. Naturally, not all my books are what I had wished them to be, but some are what I set out to achieve. There are several pieces of prose I would like to consign to an oubliette and others I hope will remain in the light. I have no idea yet where this particular volume of verses will fit in. I decided, as a homage to forebears who crossed the Irish Sea from the Kilworth Mountains in County Cork and for other less explicable inner reasons, to bring this volume out under the Gaelic version of my surname.

Most of my poems are short and I wanted to write an epic in the sense that it is longer by far than any other I have penned. Here it is, along with the usual handful of briefer efforts. On the surface it looks like a long run of what we called in the Air Force ‘wheneyes’. When I was in such-a-place. Those who move home a great deal mark their individual memories by where they were living on a certain date. There’s a touch of showing off, but there’s also an indelible recollection, an impression that’s printed on one’s brain which one is eager to share. One of the extra poems in here is dedicated to those men and women who live their lives in one city, town or village without ever having the desire to move. They are indeed just as blessed as those that trot around the globe. Both paths in life have their rewards. All in all, I hope the reader of this epic poem just enjoys the way I have embellished and flirted with


my visits to other lands and perhaps nudged the memories of their own travels abroad.

I do not have good photographs of all the places I have been. In the 1990s and early 2000s I only used video, which does not provide good stills, any frozen frame being fuzzy. Any pictures I took in the days before I owned a digital camera are re- photographed prints and of poor resolution. The tiger we saw in Rambanthore is a good example. Where I have no acceptable photos at all I have taken a picture of a symbol or artefact to represent the subject.

Douglas Ciluird, 2022.



Songs of the Earth, Sea and Sky (Personal Journeys)


I have been to the Ran of Kutch to see in the wild hinterland
an ass as noble as a horse with two-tone coat of umber sand.



I have been to Gujarat
where dark-maned Asian lions kill: smaller than their cousins yet they murder prey with matching skill.



An orangutan, gazing down,

studied me from up on high. His gentle eyes revealed to me, he has a better soul than I.



I have been to Ranthambore seeking cats with sheaths for paws: saw a tiger and his mate shred a deer with sickle claws.



I have been to Raratonga, Tahiti, Fiji, Aitutaki - Oceania’s lovely islands, sadly now too far for me.

page11image16157744 page11image16157952


I have sailed Alaskan seas
where killer whales and humpbacks glide, churning the waters, stirring the deep, 
mixing the hues of twilight’s tide.



Off the Turkish Kerme Gulf I saw a rare Monk Seal. She was eating octopus:
a slimy, squirming meal.



I have slept in the Hadhramaut, found scorpions, spiders and skinks escaping from the desert’s cold, inside my boots and blanket fold.



I have walked the Yukon Trail, watched a grizzly eating fruit: wanted to go to Yellowknife, but that was much too far to suit.



In Addu Atoll’s jade lagoon I swam with giant rays, big as boardroom tabletops gliding over coral crops.



In Tamanagara I have sought

(aware I was a walking feast) a giant python, plump as me, a huge, reticulated beast.



In Australia’s vast Outback, where deadly snakes bask in the sun, I camped in a swag for several days without encountering a single one.



I have been to the Western Ghats

and seen long-legged lizards leap from leaf to twig, from twig to leaf: kangaroos of the reptile heap.



A fact I learned in Rajasthan (a most peculiar thing) not every Singh is a Sikh but every Sikh is a Singh.



I once roamed the Serengeti, found a splendid greater cat, a leopard lazing in a tree, nature’s prime aristocrat.



I have been to Hiroshima
in the cherry-blossomed spring: first the bomb and then the silence, now - again - the linnets sing.



I have been to green Guilin,
its mountains ‘sharp as pins’,
where crooked dwarf pines hang their hair and the River Li begins.



I have been to Yosemite
and climbed El Capitan: meadows, domes and valley trails, lay below in spindrift veils.



I was caught out in a typhoon, where high winds and water meet:

Hong Kong junks and harbour sampans tossed up on a Kowloon street.



I have been to Istanbul
and have sailed the Golden Horn: 
I wish I’d been a Byzantine before the Christ was born.



I have seen the Grecian ruins where democracy was sown:
with those seeds, you ancient Hellenes, western politics were grown.



I have seen Tunisia,
the place where Carthage stood, 
where Romans razed Queen Dido’s city leaving naught but blood.



I have been to Uppsala,
saw tombs of royal Viking dead: their kings lay underneath the earth on which my Saxon boots did tread.



I saw bowls of coloured spices,
in the souk of Tangier town: cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek, cloves 
– subtle shades of downy brown.



I skated with her on the Rideau Canal on a magical midnight hour when my pronoun changed from me to us and never went it back again.



I have been to Ecuador, taking pictures on the line - the Condor bird, I never saw, but capybara, he was mine.



I have stepped on solid lava, pocked and pointed underfoot: Bali’s aa and pahoehoe
cut right through my leather boot.



I have been to far Malacca where the Nonya man agrees: ‘Oran Cina bukan Cina’ –
‘I am not Chinese Chinese’.



Once were garbage tips where children from Manila fought for scraps: chicken bones and slops were stuffed in pockets and in filthy caps.


page35image16163984 page35image16163776


I have been to London town
to see our Liz, the Queen:
I rang the bell three times but she was nowhere to be seen.



I have lived in Leeward, Windward, islands in a turquoise sea:
full of music, laughter, colour 
– each one owns a piece of me.



We canoed in Sarawak
to a longhouse hung with heads: enemies of a Dyak tribe, bunched and dangling over beds.



have been to Delphi’s ruins, asked the Oracle my fate: she told me I would have to wait and wait and wait and wait.



I have been to Iceland’s fields and stood in awe before Law Rock. The Althing sat in year 930 -

parliaments were on the clock.



I tried to scale the steep ice wall, Franz Josef Glacier in NZ:
it was too sheer and so I climbed the smoother glacier, Fox, instead.



I swam warm in seas called Red,
in Meds and Blacks and seas named Dead, China, Coral, Caribbean:
just our North was cold and mean.



I have been to Arnhem Land where the Yolngu live still: there the rock art is superb carved into Injalak Hill.



I have been to Rotorua: volcanic beauty in the raw: one requires a nose of stone where rotten-egg-smells soar.



I crawled through a Cu Chi tunnel, deep and tight and long and black: the more I tried to flout my fear,

the more the world weighed on my back.



I have sailed in ancient seas,
on the waves Odysseus used
to reach his home in Ithaca, bewitched, bedevilled, sadly bruised.



I have been to Tuscany, imbibed the beauty of a land, where the finest art appeared, created by an Angel’s hand.





Have you been to Trollfjord where eagles poise on peaks, then hurtle from an Arctic sky to snatch up silver streaks?



Have you been to the Taj Mahal? This sultan’s symbol must be seen, blinding in its marble white, tomb of Jahan’s Mughal queen.



Have you walked in Chang Mai’s hills – met Kayan Lawhi on the way?
At night the trails are cool and dark, though blistering hot the live-long day.



Have you seen Kuala Lumpur railway station’s deft design:
a wedding cake with stilt cupola, fretwork arches, serpentine.



Have you seen the red Alhambra? Bathed by moons and kissed by suns: honeycombed its halls and pathways where its precious water runs.



Have you seen that ancient wonder, flayed by days and stroked by nights: Petra, home of Nabataeans, carved by hand from sandstone heights?



Have you seen that marvellous city, sitting on a sea of light? Venice, its basilica
and Ca’d’Oro’s golden sight.



Have you seen the Aussie croc: the Saltie that can eat young boys? - or sweet girls, it doesn’t care, even if a lassie cloys.



Have you been to Kinabalu,
seen the gully known as Low’s?
A deep, green gorge that swallows people on whose bones the star moss grows.



Have you seen my Spanish village, white-washed house with red-tiled roof? La Herradura is ‘The Horseshoe’ scalloped like a giant hoof.

(¿Has visto mi pueblo español?
¿Mi casa encalada, su techo de tejas rojas? La Herradura es 
’The horseshoe’ impreso por una pezuña gigante.)



Have you seen Semana Santa’s deep, mysterious parades? Sombre, sinister to strangers, dark, profound arcane displays.



Have you seen Aguila village? Their fiesta will enthral. Eat your heart out, Rio folk, this carnival surpasses all.



Have you seen Al Jebel Shamsan’s wide, volcanic hollow cone? There the white-housed town of Aden nestles in its well of stone.



Have you been inside the boatyard of the Viking town, Roskilde? There lay nine enormous longships crafted by a long-dead builder.



Have you seen the golden cone, Wat Saket in Bangkok,

blinding in its brilliance when the sun’s at noon o’clock?



Have you been to Napier,
for which New Zealand is renown? Art Deco architecture reigns
in every house throughout the town.



Have you been to Corsica, where fragrance overflows and spills wild scents of flowers, herbs and bark, down its aromatic hills?



Or to far Macao’s casinos, where obsessive gamblers play? There the old colonial houses lapse in elegant decay.



Have you been to Chicken Town tucked inside Alaska State? Population seven souls, mining gold at paltry rate.



Have you been to Wadi Rum? The sand is pink and fine. There the Bedu noses are

superbly aquiline.



Have you been to Bay of Fires, Tasmania’s mouth of golden sand stretched along the wild, wild shore of Van Diemen’s Land?



Did you see Kowloon Walled City, the massive slum in old Hong Kong? One square mile of shanty dwellings, happily it’s been and gone.



Were you parked in Singapore when kampong villages were there? Now there is a Sky Park perched above a modern thoroughfare.



Have you been to Quebec City where the proud St Lawrence flows: stiff in winter, swift in summer, prince of both the seasons’ shows.



Have you seen the Amazon, shorter river than the Nile? It’ll always come in second, if by just a single mile.



Have you seen Calypso’s Isle, slept on Gozo’s golden sand: or Cyprus rock where Aphrodite stepped from seashell onto land?




I will go to Everest, tallest mountain of them all: Mallory is buried up there somewhere in its snowy wall.



I will go to Machu Picchu, famous ancient citadel, haunted by mad Incan ghosts, glaring at the tourist hosts.



I will go to Samarkand,

a city beautiful, arcane, on the way to China’s riches: rhubarb, silk and porcelain.



I will go to Galapagos where iguanas snort and spray Sally Lightfoot Crabs with sea salt every hour of every day.



I will walk that wall in China keeping Mongols on their plain,

walk from Shanhai Pass to Gansu – then I’ll walk it back again.



I will go to Angel Falls,
that long and plaited rope of water dropping silken from the sky: 
nature’s own Rapunzel’s daughter.


↓ ↓ ↓ ↓


I want to visit many lands
but I’m running out of time: mortal years spin round the clock – faint, the distant final chime.



I will die and go quite soon, out to swim among the stars, as I pass I’ll touch our sun, then drift on past Orion’s Bar.




Bozburun, Turkey

against the house,
a gable of olive logs, wonderfully ancient and ugly, contorted, knotted, gnarled, sawn from trunks
that once writhed slowly out of the arid earth
of Baba Dagi.

After yielding
jade and dusky fruits, branches for peace, colours dragged
from a grudging soil, they will now warm
the wood-cutter and his wife, with a final brilliant blaze, before these craggy, tortured, iron-hard lumps of life become just wraiths.


Standing by Groyne B101 Felixstowe

When I was a boy, these groynes were blackened wood wearing garbs of green: ancient, slimy monsters crawling from the sea at low tide.

In the new century, those groynes were gone, great granite rocks became breakwaters: magnificent sleeping dragons, mica glistening in the sun, feldspar, quartz, hornblende burnished by breakers, defying the pull of the moon, commanding the currents, the ebb and flow of tides, the North Sea drift,
the swells.

Coming from Norway they were the new Vikings, invaders from over the sea, the legacy of King Canute – and this time they really did do what King Knut could not.



Today I learn
I am
a great-grandfather
with three begats to my name. It feels
and I hold his little hand fusing four generations. Yesterday
his first smile
filled my world with light. 
He is my grandson’s son. He is my sun.



To live and die in the same village, in the same house,
a life bookended by the same bricks, could be rich in many ways.
To know intimately every tree, every track, wood and glade;
to know most neighbours
since birth,
must be satisfying.
A soul would be safe in such
a cosy circle of dwellings and friends, the graveyard full of familiar names, the lodges, nests and dens
of local wild beasts and birds
no secret.
The world traveller is aware
of the general,
while the stay-at-home
privy to detail.


Pros and Cons

I like to be there,
but I don’t like the getting.
I enjoy a rainstorm,
but dislike the wetting.
I love cuckoos calling, though I hate their habits, 
and I’m fond of the fox, when he’s not ripping rabbits. I love the ocean
when I’m not going under and a lightning-filled sky, without loud thunder. Life’s full of stuff
that one loves-and-hates, going in doorways
and out through its gates.


Sky and Sea

Next in might and wonder to planets, stars, comets, an awe-inspiring cosmos, the infinite universe, black holes and dark matter, the swish and whizz
of distant suns,
there is the sea.

I can stare at the sea, ponder on impartial power, its many forms and shapes, many shades and hues, feel overwhelmed
by terrifying waves, heart beating in my breast like wild surf on shingle.


The Bird Ringer

He holds in his hand
a feathered ball with a beating heart, index and middle fingers forked gently round the nape
of its neck:
a wild thing with wild eyes.
I wonder at its fear,
rage or even contempt
for the holder.
The ringer blows on its belly, stirring the softest of down.
A juvenile.
See the grey area?
’ Minuscule measurements taken and logged and then, indignantly
the bird is upended in a paper cup to be weighed.
A wide-open sky
instantly swallows
the tiny speck,
leaving just marks in a ledger:
a banal code for a beautiful creature, a marvel of nature, whose home is not the earth,
but the infinite air.


The Silence

We sit in one room, one-minded, in quietude.
This we call Meeting for Worship initially a mental falling-away from the world around me,
a drift into calmness,
a shedding of personal cares, jagged thoughts, pressing problems.

This is the Silence adored by Quakers
for being what it is:
one hour of
severance from shopping lists, bills, boilers that break, dentists and doctors, Myself.

A time to consider Concerns:
war and poverty, unnatural disasters and other lunacies at which we chip hoping to uncover a saner-shaped world beneath.



Death is not something
you meet face to face
at the end of your life. Death is always right behind you, following you from birth, tapping you on the shoulder, nipping at your heels, trying to overtake you,
until finally,
he does.


Á Deux

You must brace yourself before roaring off on a Harley-Davidson Softail Deuce, with its twin-cam balanced engine.
Twomey effect, which applies to clouds, counts double for this great machine.
I don’t want to sound bipartisan,
but in a 
duel with any other bike
ne’er the twain
shall meet again.

(That’s a rhyming couplet for those who like their lines in tandem.) Then again, a pair of these hogs can form a duo upon the motorway to give you twice the danger. Yeah. Yeah.



When we were young we would go pickin’ hips and haws,
sloes from blackthorns, crab apples, blackberries from brambles, elderberries
to make wine, mushrooms from meadows, conkers to conquer, acorn cups
to make pixie pipes.


A Magical Morning

A magical winter morning:
the day of the first frost.
The pines have silver sheaths
and crab apples hang heavy
with shells of icing sugar. Fallen leaves have turned to glass and crackle underfoot. Everything glitters and sparkles
in the slanting winter sunshine. Overhead, the wide Suffolk sky
is blue, inlaid with white cloud. Somewhere in the trees, a bird sings: happy or sad I know not.
Cold, it is, but a cleansing cold.
A freshness is on the earth.
My skin feels alive to the wind’s touch and my heart is thin, light crystal. This is a fleeting gift.



These wraiths that waft around my room fill my head with formless dreams and lift me on a fragrant cloud
into a place devoid of schemes:
a touchless, edgeless, floating space that frees me from the human race.



Blonde, blonde, blonde sends me high into beyond. Lovely Scandinavian girls send my wilding dreams in whirls. Debbie Harry, Dragon Lady, nothing dark, nothing shady, Goldie Hawn and Shelley Long: how my heart blooms into song. How I love the luminesces
of long golden, golden, tresses: 
Pony tails of sunlight’s rays send my mind into a daze. Carole Lombard, Sandra Dee, Doris Day and Grace Kel-ly – and yet, and yet, and yet, and yet, there is one who bests the best: my lovely, loving, blonde Annette.


Felixstowe – Dusk over the North Sea

Night is drifting softly in, beyond the distant strand
Way out there a cloud bank, becomes another land
Pale blue melds with deep blues, forming darker rays Here on the quiet hinterland the borough slowly greys
One by one sharp squares of light appear around the town And busy roads and noisy streets begin to settle down Then suddenly a coruscation, rids the dusk of scars Dockland cranes have sprung to light, festooned with feral stars Next a strumpet ship arrives of several thousand tonnes
A gaudy hussy who has spun her own bright web of suns She drifts on slowly, slowly past the watchers of the earth Careless of the many eyes that guide her to her berth Then 
the sky’s last pale-blue pools, seep silently away
Into the oil-dark ocean, to end the run of day.


Paintings by Annette Kilworth Cranes by the River Li’ ‘Sally Lightfoot’

Cover art for ‘Tales from the Fragrant Harbour’ by kind permission of Vincent Chong

Kuala Lumpur Railway Station was licensed by iStock

My thanks for assistance go to: Tamzin and Dean Howell Keith Brooke
Cath Beacher Deborah and Peter Bush Robin and Glynis Moseley Mara McCaffrey