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Fingerprints Other Traces and

Poetry from Lancashire and Cumbria

Deborah Swift Martyn Halsall Mark Carson Maya Chowdhry Emma McGordon 005

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Contents

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Foreword Deborah Swift Boots on the Moon The Stone Rubbing Cairn Self-portrait with Binoculars Obituary Martyn Halsall Scalpay Legend Blackthorn Rembrandt’s Sandwich Mark Carson Cat’arsis Per Ardua ad Nauseam Offshore System Designer makes Dodgy Decision Maya Chowdhry Barter Kali Mirchi been sprouts Genderality Emma McGordon Death at 22 from a Curable Disease Gutter-Witch Blue Black Zac

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This edition published in Great Britain by Flaxbooks, 26 Sun Street, Lancaster, LA1 1EW. Tel 01524 62166. www.litfest.org All works Š their respective authors Fingerprints and Other Traces (flax005) Š Flaxbooks All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher and individual creators. Flaxbooks is the publishing imprint of Litfest. Lancaster and District Festival Ltd trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670 Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and layout: Martin Chester at Litfest Photography: Jonathan Bean

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Foreword I knew Flax books would have no shortage of poets for its second digital anthology, but not how astonishingly various their writing would be. Although the five poets whose work is sampled here could hardly write more differently from each other, they do have something in common. All engage with surprising and often challenging subject matter – and invent ways of writing to handle it. Coulombs and van de Graff not the stuff of poems? They are with Mark Carson’s light touch. So are towfishes and urethane in tougher poems about the relentlessness of working at sea. His lights and darks are elegantly fused in ‘Offshore System Designer makes Dodgy Decision’. Maya Chowdhry loves words too, her title ‘Genderality’ telling you she’s making a risky poem about gender identity. Skilfully, she allows language to drive the poem: ‘we’re crossing over, under / cover’. Oh yes, she does write one poem about a more ‘usual’ subject matter, the end of a relationship – but you’ll never have come across anything quite so inventive as her ‘been-sprouts’. There’s a change of pace with Martyn Halsall’s writing: he draws you into a growing stillness and silence until you can hear music ‘keyed to the breeze’. A poem in which he recalls being told about making a blackthorn staff builds and intensifies, then quietly unravels in its final couplet.

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Emma McGordon uses rhythm and repetition as an engine for fast-moving poems that confront urban life and alienation. Her shifts of perspective cleverly keep you inside the poem, and may leave you, like her, ‘Drawn / To the man who street cleans / Last night’s screams’. The moon, the future, the past – these are some of the places Deborah Swift takes us, not as abstract ideas, but with vivid and shapely writing to make them tangible, her ‘fingers absorbed in the marks’. There’s a particularly fine ending to her ‘Boots on the Moon’. And that’s another thing these five poets have in common – an ability to deliver last lines that leave you savouring the poem. And wanting more. Jane Routh


Deborah Swift Boots on the Moon The Stone Rubbing Cairn Self-portrait with Binoculars Obituary

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Boots on the Moon

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They’re still up there, size nine-and-a-half, medium – where micro-meteoroids swirl like milk in a washbowl of ink. The boots stand nights colder than the black silk skin in an Eskimo’s borehole. Silicon is unstable in the gases exhalation, so the soles crumble in their own footprints. Their buckles have fallen away, and glint, float silvery against the pock-marked crust. Grey sandstorms wear the man-made fibres thin; threads of polyester detach themselves, glow softly as they sashay into space. In their linings, yellow plastic bladders designed to protect and cushion the foot, encapsulate the 1960’s breath. The rock samples are calibrated, boots left where they stand, their precise weight in rocks, carried home barefoot. The air bends, quivers in the boom of the shuttle’s returning velocity; the men begin to plummet, stretching toes through zero gravity to terra firma. A shoemaker in Delaware inhales, sees the shuttle break the waves, looks up at night to where his outbreath hangs, left behind in the yellow stomachs of their footfalls.


The Stone Rubbing I hold the film of paper over the stone as she rubs in the paste of pearly graphite. A shoal of fish bloom from the white space, then dart away under silvery dust. The paper pecks in the wind; from above the marbling of shadows, a flock of birds calling.

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The blue sleeve of her raincoat is bruised black from rubbing, kneading other ages into here and now. The sandstone blushes under her lead caress. Her gold hair blows; a Midas in reverse, as she tells me how Winifred Nicholson teased out the mysterious braille, her hands blackened rain-clouds drifting. The cup and rings won’t come, reluctant to be lured into a flutter of paper. Fixed in hard crag, the pebble-in-a-pond circles have sat in the same question for centuries. She kneels, fingers absorbed in the marks – axe tracks, old grooves and faint trails – shoals and flocks following.

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Cairn From the top, the town is a crust of grey almost pocketed by the valley. A place can diminish, a man grow god-like in this ice-floe of the sky. Someone placed a single stone, to own the hill before the others came.

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The cairn is full of holes and ragged, choosing for itself a shape to trap the rain. We place our stone, as though to mend it, but the pile is turning native; it rolls away.


Self-portrait with Binoculars My neck kowtows from side to side, lidless eyes slew upwards into empty air: twin black holes stretched over glassy depths, cupping miniature drifts of cloud. The hawk swings, hangs from a thread of intent, its shadow a dark moment poured on stubbled ground. It scans the ochre cross-hatch, bleached by summer’s heat.

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A mouse, terrified to stillness, dare not blink, suspends the twitch of its heart in case the grass should quiver, the claw hammer smash down into the red-yolked skull. A kite can see a rabbit break for home from half a mile, track the panicked ultraviolet stains of voles. The mouse runs. My eyes swoop, lenses pull the topsy-turvy bird into the mind.


Obituary Fire is gone from the city, the notion of keeping a flame. Combustion is hidden in chambers where fission and the leap of spark are groomed by computers while we sleep. Pyrotechnics, once a universal skill, are controlled by lever, pump and switch. Wood and soft combustibles industrialized, to fossil fuel.

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The cut trees, splitting as the lumber ripens in the sun, and stacks of firewood gone. No one will raise the whetted axe to hack along the grain, or grunt before they drag it back, to burn in forge and hearth, or smell the sulphur when the match is lit, feed it, coax it, watch the kindling spit, see pictures coat its yellow tongue. The city is fireproof – stainless steel and glass. A campfire’s savage, and fire in the mind – thermodynamics. Firepower streaks like fear into the plugs, a lightning that astonishes, makes headlines when it strikes. Ignition is turning a key in the car. No wool or tinder there to set alight, and no one herds the flame to trap the deer, or damps it down to roast the meat.


Martyn Halsall Scalpay Legend Blackthorn Rembrandt’s Sandwich

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Scalpay You could sit out here all day; nothing would happen. A tide might stain the slipway in the lochan, gulls would glide over, trailing cries and shadows, hard plait of gneiss and turf folds darken, lighten, small waters smooth, then pattern to a salmon skin.

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Sky would be kneaded, rise to spread a squall creating a widening stipple on open water and blot the painter’s sheet or punctuate a line before it’s written, glaze a new stone as it’s lifted for setting, matt the colour scheme of lichen along brown runnels of a worn tin roof. You could look at the rock and count four billion years, read of a range of mountains higher than Andes or Himalaya, see these hills worn low by this same rain, sense how it was changed gradually each day; how it goes on.


Legend The rest had gone back up the track to the rented farm. She stayed with her two daughters by the shore, facing the island wide as a mother’s welcome. Light gentled, oil lamp turned down in slow motion. She heard the families’ voices fade, the odd laugh left hanging, protest, squeal of a tease. They watched far coastlines haze, tide gather evening, sky’s glowed hearth settle to the ash of their driftwood fire.

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Daughters drew stillness round them like their blankets, shared the watch with her; poised gulls, frill of tide, last burn of sunlight coppering sharpened crags. One note. A ripple, scale, then tentative chords; soon a tune fingered, floated, keyed to breeze. A solo clarinettist far down the shore riffing dusk; drift in woodsmoke; pipes knife-sharped as oystercatchers always dressed for evening. Each note stroked through hushed brush of folded water. Do you know the story of Orpheus? They shook their heads. He played a lute, a small harp you can hold. Its music made the world: trees, plants and flowers, those summits across the bay where clouds are rising. The children waited, quiet for once and listening to the man who could summon nightfall out of music. In a moment their mother would say: we’ll have to go now. But not yet. Not till the world that he played was finished.


Blackthorn Deep roots must come out whole to form the crown, as he explained it. Wrenching the blackthorn free meant digging round and deep, forming a pool the sky reflected in as bog-flood filled it. Each stem would make a staff, hacked straight, and seasoned simply by waiting, letting sap breathe to air; wood set in its own clearing, keen as steel. Varnish would sheen it dark as a night of rain.

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Using one could transform him: prophet, saint, in the old sense, walking, breaking fresh words like bread to share their meaning, leaving on the bounce of peat no wound, as ground, healed of itself, bounced back. But then he’d left them somewhere, bench or shed, over the water; bags packed, driving away


Rembrandt’s Sandwich An artist sits in a café, watching a man. Her eyes are drawn to the warming red of his coat, the grateful way he cups his steaming drink, worries at a sandwich; rabbi, chewing prayer. The man is facing the past, in its winter light. He could be someone known, or wearing a mask. He is also watching: menu readers, shoppers, prodigal children, loose, daughters and sons.

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The artist begins to catch him in her pocket book; the angle of his mind, worn by remembering, halter of his shoulders, phrasing of bearded jaw as if rehearsing a speech he’d half forgotten, small hopes in half-closed eyes, small hopes returning. The artist jots notes: scarlets, pleats on rags. She pauses, leaves a gap in front of the man, a space for a tumbled body and bronzed, shaved head recasting Rembrandt, who painted a father who watched roads and crowds for so long, till holes in his hands were refilled by his son’s return. Servants in shadow wondering if it was better to smile, or marvel. Perhaps Rembrandt, reaching for bread, caught searching eyes, recalled that story, set his crust aside. Drew.


Mark Carson Cat’arsis Per Ardua ad Nauseam Offshore System Designer makes Dodgy Decision

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Cat’arsis Cat fur was used for early electrostatics experiments, before the Wimshurst Machine and the van de Graaff Generator. With van de Graaff caress I sweep cat-ions to the tip of each tapered hair stripping them free charging her up to a perilous puss-potential.

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Lithe with gigavolts on dielectric paws she fairly crackles with coulombs. Now, a deft approach to the tufted tip of her conductive ear. Phuitt! Six thousand microns of desiccated air crack and a whiff of ozone drifts away.

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Per Ardua ad Nauseam The oceanographer’s motto: through difficulty until seasick The door crashed back. Diesel roaring a man falls stumbling, shaking and grabbing my shoulder he shouts yells by my ear, slams out. The bulb burns orange.

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The ship is uneasy: rolls hangs falls. The brush in the toothglass topples, drops a relentless irregular beat. Dulled, behind my eyes the dazzle pulse slows to a sickly heartbeat. Up in the lab, squalor: ashtrays and cups, cans, crusts and the hot smell of solder, logbooks, litter, tooth-marked biros. Tubes flare out the features of unshaven faces, grey-blue from the shades.

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Fathoms below, the towfish streams sensors through layered Atlantic. Five little pens scritch a trace on the scroll; one pen is still. We go through the motions of hope, speed up, slow down, high gain, low gain, no gain.


We are kidding ourselves that we can go on, go to bed, get up like humans in daylight. Decks down, in the alley sleep swills knee-deep in the doorways. Drapes swing and the bosun snorts and rolls in his body, wakes graceless, grunts his feet into slippers.

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On deck, a grey lumping line is the dawn. Pallid and chill my oilskin sweats cold. The crane coughs, bangs, kicks into life. As the winch grinds in, stub-ended nerveless my hands wrench the fairing, catch the hook as it swings past my skull. The towfish lies dripping on deck, beached dolphin, its urethane bladder extruded for surgery. Breakfast is waiting below, stewed tea and dried milk, greased bacon, scorched bread.

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Later we’ll start, we’ll take it apart strip it down, clean it out, set it up for the next launch, the next tow, next night watch, next shake in the dark.


Offshore System Designer makes Dodgy Decision This engineer can’t get design approval. He’s got to square the circle: compromise is oval – he’ll smooth the seastate, shave the ship excursions, massage the data to suppress the motions.

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Believes his own distortions, thinks that he’s determining the spectrum of the gales and seas. Bends the criteria, and overrules the codes of practice, guidance notes for fools. Canute could tell these self-deluding clowns a thing or two about the tides, their ups and downs, and winds, and waves, and where the surges reach and when to move your sofa up the beach.


Maya Chowdhry Barter Kali Mirchi been sprouts Genderality

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Barter i swapped a purple sports bra for my first dress ready-made didn’t recognise myself as the skirt skirted its mosaic mirrors suburban Noida ringing in the mid-distance in the second dress i was shrouded in a bluebell’s bell the seams were seamless traced my spine despite the lack of measurements she said she’d dreamed of me naked

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i imagine her in the sports bra its lycra pinning her breasts to her rib cage she told me she’d worn it in Defence Colony Bazaar acquiring haberdashery in small newspaper packets tied with string later i found a pink ribbon in an inside seam an embroidered motif that grazed my navel and wondered what it spelled


Kali Mirchi kali mirchi predicts the fall of nations pursuing a palatable future in the Malabar mangroves her emerging flower-spike ripening red climbing the coffee crop blackened skin abraded to white to pepper a jar of Patak’s

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kali mirchi (Punjabi for black pepper)


been-sprouts

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break-up from your girlfriend, discard longing into compost you need to have prepared yourself the day before pick over and remove any broken feelings: fear, anger, hatred. rinse in several changes of lukewarm water to remove dust and anything left from the milling process cover all with warm water and soak for twelve hours put in a plastic bag that has been punched all over with holes (you can do this with a fork). place the bag in a sieve leaving the mouth of the bag open cover this opening with a tripled well-dampened tea towel. balance over a large bowl in a dark, draught-free place, some people use the unlit oven, or the area under their sinks. drain try balancing your needs with hers drain you will find other feelings have sprouted overnight let warm water gush over again and again and clean rub carefully, that which doesn’t float away should be picked off. repeat this process every four hours, never disturb continue to do this for three to four days or until the beans have elongated this is the ideal process producing perfect sprouts anything else will produce stunted results. at this point do not cover up, place in the fridge and all will stay healthy for three days.


Genderality 1978 aged thirteen / i wear a denim waistcoat / khaki small-collared shirt knotted with a black silk tie / my mum refuses to leave the house / with me until i take the tie off / i stuff it in my pocket and wear / an imaginary knot; centre-stage

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scene one: throw me a life buoy sailor, we living in sink or swim times; all mouth and no trousers getting thrown out the ladies for looking so sexy butch she’s a girl! she’s a boi with a toy denied admission to vanilla she’s a girl looking straight / through me she’s all fired up on T did i say she? i mean he, it, shit, we’re crossing over, under / cover agents for the gender divide becoming them and finding: recipes for bombs measurements for inside leg how to grow the hair / elsewhere he’s a faery boi / should be a girl, grew his hair and tucked his cock down


her inside leg what a drag, not popular like the queens / not cultured like the queers, something in-between the word-play translator or impersonator transgressor or impresser test the line

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scene two: skirts don’t suit me, something about the cut, the print, the way it hangs like abandoned washing grazing my knees, bellowing in the breeze an embarrassment / like the time I walked down market street with the back of it all tucked up in my knickers and I never knew / that I could wear genes charity-shop retro, inherited from the underground worn lives / gender uniforms on rails / try them on for size / unwanted garments / on special offer / shop-soiled y change what you wear / to fit in with your x’s crowd you still won’t gain entry / they’ll be wearing top man / when you’re all tammy girl scene three: on the street I wear one of my off-stage identities and an old lady says: ‘can you help me cross the road young man’ i readjust my sock / take my hands outta my pockets, grasp her arm, dodge the 6pm traffic


scene four: i can rip-saw / use a lathe, make mortise, tenon and dovetail joints ‘tie your hair back’ the journey-man says / health and safety i plane oak, wafer-thin curls peeling back to smooth contours, trace the years with my index finger / 28 and still no sign of an identity: carpenter, film-maker, web-designer activist, mentor, chairperson gendered jobs / apply within

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scene five: write an application / person specification: silver wisdom in her hair roses / spirals / celtic knots big / bouncy / braless / breasts / stunt cunt flying open four armed lesbian kali gender killer this flavour is not available in other stores


Emma McGordon Death at 22 from a Curable Disease Gutter-Witch Blue Black Zac

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Death at 22 from a Curable Disease Outside they will be getting married, buying houses deciding on tea-dipping biscuits. Outside they will hold each other until they squeeze the very life from that which they cherish. Outside all of this will be repeated in 18 or 15 or 20 years time.

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Outside they will die young and know little, and I will hear about this as I pass through isles of supermarkets. Outside they will smoke each other’s cigarettes and believe themselves to have lived to live and to have life forever. Outside they will not know of WH Auden, Anne Sexton or Barry Patrick MacSweeney, nor will they care to know.

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Inside there will be two lights, a radio, several books scattered, a half drunk lager, an empty coffee cup, a pen with chewed lid.


Inside there will be no knowledge of the latest eviction or the care for the status of celebrity. Inside four plates will be washed, one to be used again tomorrow. Inside there may be the anger of a young man, although outside they will not feel his wrath or dependability or envy in the slightest.

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Outside they will go blind in one eye and again I will hear about this through temporary connections buzzing with sounds of news-speak, gossip and have-you-heard-abouts. Inside and outside we will know that these connections are futile, full of non-passionate failings, too late for preventing avoidable accidents and opportunities missed for diagnosis.


Gutter-Witch

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From up here, where the steam of the street heat rises, I hear the savage cackle of some gutter-witch, who argues the price of a pizza slice or a look misguided in her direction. And she who has dressed for this occasion to sounds that one day she will come to know as youth, pulls at the black strap that has from her shoulder slipped unnoticed to reveal an identical one of white on her sunscorched skin. From above to below she knows nothing of me watching this, or knows that one did witness the kiss that was wet with deception, still she clung to the argument’s hiss as her strapless body mingled with his.


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The street steam cools and falls, fools find themselves in some other’s home where beds will be slept in at right angles to sense, and the idea of sedition is given no chance. Sunday mornings mix in their cocktail smell of duvets used and cigarettes spent. Now in the not quite still turn of the dawn I find myself more closely drawn to the man who street cleans last night’s screams, and the rain which gutter runs to some place free of noise.


Blue Black Zac Blue Black Zac on his knees eyes to heaven. In the May sunshine you can see the souls of his shoes as he rests on his heels.

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This is the May Day bank holiday of a ‘returned to school’ child’s drawing: spider sun in the top left corner, an ice cream, a football, a grazed knee. This is a children’s playground, three red swings, banana slide, a park bench and railings. Blue Black Zac on his knees eyes to heaven. May sunshine warm on his face. He dreams of a man riding a red horse among myrtle trees in a ravine with red brown, white horses behind him.


This is the May Day bank holiday of two friends, Ikea excited, driven car park crazy by two more friends and two more friends, all with the idea of a space-saving-shelf that they have the perfect photograph of themselves and a loved one in a fake leopard-skin-style frame that will look just wonderful in a kitsch kind of way.

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There is another car park, near a playground. They will park there. Getting out, gabbering and gibbering half tripping on tape measures half noticing a man in the park resting on his knees. Blue Black Zac in his tracksuit, trainers, beloved football shirt, on his knees looking to the Lord who said: “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise his head. let the dying die and the perishing perish, their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished.� Or at least this is what Zac thought he heard.


This is the May Day bank holiday twelve months since we shared a pub, a pool table, a jukebox. Your broad chest, you talked of your little prince and princess in a land far far away with a woman you wanted to call wife.

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Zac, twelve months ago we sat in a blue black car, watched the sunset, and borrowed binoculars from the couple in the car next to us. You’d never seen so far in one gaze stretched, so far you said it was almost the future. Zac, if you could have seen the moon turn twelve times from then you would see no son rising from his knees. You joked, you said if there’s a red sky at night it meant the chip shop was alight. Blue Black Zac on his knees on a day when many shepherds had already risen over the land. Shepherds who do not care for the lost, seek the young, do not heal the injured or feed the healthy but eat the meat off the choice sheep, tearing off their hooves.


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Zac, I was the child on the swing. Zac, I was the Ikea excited. Zac, I was even the blood hungry hack who got the line, the fact that you were found dead on your knees and looking to heaven for answers. Blue lights flashing on your face and arms blackened by your own blood and didn’t that grim discovery as we called it sell a few more copies of the evening edition that would otherwise have been packed out with May Day frivolities and it gave us something to talk about over a pint – what a cracking story. Zac, I am more of a hypocrite than those hacks, for in life I would never have written about you. Thought of you almost as a figure of insignificance. Still sons die for the recognition that they did live. And now, Zac, though you can no longer hear me, I will speak of you to those who would otherwise never have known your name.


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