Helen Bailey

Helen Bailey studied Theatre at Dartington College of Arts, specialising in Writing and Voice. After finishing her degree, she concentrated on music, forming a band which played in Ireland and Algeria and a record label, DogFish Records, with her partner. She is interested in bad women, landscapes and the altered everyday. She lives near the marshes in Hackney and is working on a collection of poems and her first novel.







There’s a certain knife
slim, steel, aqua blue.
A beauty, so sharp it lives in a sheath on its own
and which, when I hold in my hand
I imagine sliding into the warm black fur
Of my cat’s belly –
become a Murakami witch.


It happens every morning as I slice fruit
and I wonder at my cruelty.


My father once told me he had a recurring nightmare
I was grateful he spared me the images –
my own library of cruelty is full enough.
But I wonder in what dark place we met
and laid out the templates of our fear
that I must remind myself of it, of him,
every morning
with the knife my sister gave me.





Did anyone tell you about the drowned girl?
Found in the reeds of the river Dart, with her slender neck
broken – some blamed a swan – some the knicker-snatcher.


I heard there was a confession in a cell
by a man whose freedom was on pause for some other reason,
to one whose reputation was village story-spinner myth-maker,
whose scattered rumours, tales, stories we licked with dark delight
and hankered after among the rain darkened houses
of that south Devon town. I heard


N is for neck and knickers      and no.
Did she say no to someone, to something, to life.


V is for violets, victory, vitriol, vital, virol
virulent, vagina, vague, viscous, vixen, valid
very, velvet, vicious, vagrant –
When the sky you can see between the oak branches
turns from dove grey to slate
to charcoal, to black – it’s comforting
to hustle up a vuvving
with your teeth against your bottom lip.
V is for vibration.


N is for not waving but drowning – a boy in the river Lea.
Policemen on the bank – but no one went in to get him.
They watched him drown – down once, twice and again
thrashing – kicking out –
were they afraid he’d drag them into the weeds?
Into the heron pool
at the bend in the river where plastic bottles gather for their brittle conferencing
joined up with friendless footballs, floating black sacks, rafts of our surplus
on their slow way to the sea.


There’s a big piece of story missing –
a tide of flowers, candles, messages along the bridge
stands a weird balcony of witness
It’s hard to believe that no-one jumped in to get him
Would I have?
Water erodes the banks there
wash from speeding boats lifts another layer –
dowses – dislodges chicks and voles, floods burrows.
Slow the fuck down.
We don’t care what we wash away.


Was he watched by blackberry gatherers?
Clutching stained and spattered plastic boxes, buckets, carrier bags –
mothers, interrupted, teaching their children how to reach in through thorns,
how to spot the fat ones, catch them in a tender hand –
what to leave, where not to lean.


And the lycra lads – slim and vapid in their wicking skins –
would they risk their wind resistance by turning their heads at the splash
to see a boy drown?
Or keep their heads down, revs up, wheels fed,
suspend their attention until their feet kick off the cleats.


Big town, small town, we all want to know about it
from a distance.
We should write their names on the water’s surface
lines of words shaded in amongst wind ripples and tiny waves
whipped by a short north wind and received by a gritty shore.
The soundtrack is a gasping where water was mistaken for air and breathed in –
where it sucked out and replaced with itself the air in a gravel footprint.


N is for doing nothing. Not noticing.
V is for vacant, vacation, violation.



Walk west


Walk west on the A30 out of town, through the pinched narrows where the houses crowd together and push their first floor windows forward for a better seaview, where lived the mother and brother of my friend Nick, camp as a jamboree and hilarious, whose favourite game was turd on a stick, and who said he had lucky legs, lucky they didn’t snap off and stick in him, who rang me, tripping, from a phonebox in London to tell me he’d just married his friend Anne and branches from the tree outside his window were coming to get him and what was he going to do, and who one night, decided he couldn’t quite carry on the brave I-don’t-care against the insults which were no less frequent in big city London than those he received in seatown, end of the world town, mostly delivered whilst slammed up against one of the rough granite walls that the town had built to keep out the sea and now, scum like him, so he soothed himself with a needle in his arm, his final act of love to himself and I wasn’t there — carry right along keeping the sea on your right onto the broad green sward where council gardeners declare and trim the town’s identity and welcome using a palette of hardy annuals, usually with a nautical theme, but also spelling out messages, achievements or milestones such as the Olympics (a golden postbox won by a golden girl leans gleaming by the dock), past the mammoth Sainsburys, squatting on the old heliport, because everyone needs wide aisles and sausages more than scenic flights and past the level crossing that leads to the free car park only locals know about, but now I’ve told you, and on along the path that runs the length of the top of the beach and after ten minutes, or after you’ve passed the Morrisons, there’s a big square pub in the bottom of the paying car park where charges apply all year round and there’s no free period, and that’s the old station house and to its right, nestling just behind the pebbles and banks of seaweed were three old disused railway carriages, brown bottoms and cream tops – a kind of Pullman coffee or banana sweet – and this is where, on a deserted Saturday afternoon, with nowhere else to go and no money to spend and only a leaking string bag to keep your options in, you could break in, climb aboard, lie on the remarkably undirty floor, and let the man of the day do what he had brought you here for, while you looked out through the window and imagined a different journey, and the clouds over the sea raced past.



Pulling in


Travelling in a changing season
We turned a corner, headed south south west and the fog came.
I’m writing to you, we’re pulling in, on the platform in the rain
a dog makes a triangle of itself – its ears the apex –its brain
fits perfectly – pointed, pointing.
Rain sits on its coat waiting to share
gradual shaking molecules enter the air
Fading out silage and riding salt cloud layers
A shed neatly fits – square


Then ­– a boy in a fez and two girls with pastelled hair
Pink, blue, green – Saturday night – I imagine
they take me with them
Heading into this grey stone Cornish town
which deadens the sound of children’s laughter
and pulls them back from the edge, as they look for the fun in their lives
which should be sewn into the buildings,
washed into the windows
trampled into the bricks
but is more likely to be hanging off the quay
with the oily nets
in the wasted shark guts
in the smell of resin and boat and diesel
in yellow oilskins and stinking lamps.
In the red of winter hawthorn
and the glassy stare of a lamped rabbit
in the broken beak of a fenced crow
in the grate of a fire that won’t light
in the lea of a seaward hill


Or in the bottom of a glass of pernod, milky with water
fuel for a hundred dreams and a thousand forgettings.


And sewn into the beginning of every sentence I start to you
a dog leg
a false start –
the thought stutters and struggles
to remember itself.
It dies
and a pale ghost of itself remains.




Boiled eggs


We had boiled eggs for breakfast
the morning after our abortions.
A dozen women gathered in strangely quiet
intimacy at immaculately laid tables.
White cloths, folded edges – spotless (private).
Some of us red-eyed – most having tried to repair
ourselves – at least our faces.
We look theatrical – the scene is Brechtfast.


I am lightblooded – lifted – glad the night is over.
Some had nightmares – one wept all night. All night.
I dreamt of a tiny light at the top of spiral stairs.
None slept long despite the drugs (private) ­–
stories seeped through like the bleeding, shared like teatime,
shredded like reasons.


We were kind to each other over that breakfast
Picking through our mixed feelings (private).
Relief like an oxygen breath in a clear blue sky,
sharp, deep, memory tinged with the smell of gas and rubber.
And when we had scraped out the last of the yolks
we tipped the empty shells upside down
and tapped them flat with our spoons.




Once in a rainstorm


There’s a ring I keep in a box –
clear plastic, so I can see it.
I’m supposed to wear it every day
but I would have to cut off my finger if I were ever to lose it.
So I hide it in a drawer, in its transparent prison.


Tiny hard raindrops join me, cool my coffee, run down my fingers
past where the ring should be.
Remind me there’s a sky.
And that once in a rainstorm I was restored.