Short stories by Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

Born in 1956, Ian McMillan first made his name through his work with the Poetry Circus in the early 1980′s. Since then he has become famous for his work in schools, radio (presenter of The Verb on Radio 3, Booked and panelist on many other Radio 4 shows, the Mark Radcliffe Show and Poetry Please), as Poet in Residence for Barnsley F.C., and in poetry venues across the nation. Ian first performed at The Shed in 1994 and has since worked with Simon on projects including the Yorkshire Pudding Boat Race, Hat (words, music and knitting) and the North Yorkshire Elvis Bus Tour.

Fish Time

I’m usually the first up in our house, first downstairs, first to put the kettle on. First to hear the fish. It doesn’t talk, of course. Or sing. It bumps into the side of its tank and blows bubbles at me. It wants feeding and it recognises me as the man with access to the fish breakfast. Now, I thought fish had hardly any memory. I thought they only had a three second memory span, could only just remember who they were, kept going Oh No! I’m Wet! Then briefly remembering they lived in water, then going Oh No! I’m Wet! again. Not our fish. It remembers. It’s like an ancient storyteller telling tales of a time before your time and before my time. Depending on the dressing-gown, of course.
Normally my gownie is a natty grey number. Charcoaly. Like the sky over Brawby on an Autumn day. When that dressing gown’s in the wash, though, I wear a green one. Bright green. I look like an apple, or a still photograph of an exploding bowl of pea soup. And the strange thing is the fish doesn’t recognise me. Doesn’t know me from Adam or indeed from Eve. They both wore matching dressing gowns. That’s why they were chucked out of Eden. It wasn’t a serpent, it was a dressing-gown cord. Just the one between them. It was a windy day. They had knowledge of each other, if you get my drift. If you get my drifting, billowing gownie.
So in my green gown I’m nobody. I put the kettle on, make the tea, the fish couldn’t care less. In my grey dressing gown, I’m a food parcel in the desert. Grey: good. Green: who ? I decided to try an experiment. The grey gownie under the green gown. I put them on upstairs, silently. The rest of the house was asleep, snoring gently. It was dark outside. Winter. Under the gowns I’m naked. I’m just trying to paint a picture for you. Oils, of course. Thick oils.
Downstairs. The green man, like a green man on a zebra crossing, walks across the kitchen to the kettle. The fish takes no notice. The green man whips off the green gown. Burlesque. Gownagram. He’s grey, and the fish goes wild, flipping like Flipper, mouthing O’s like an opera singer on telly with the sound down. Deftly, the grey man puts the green on again. The fish couldn’t care less, drifting round the bowl. Green off, and the grey starts a storm. I change from green to grey and back and forth and green and grey for long minutes as the sky outside gets a little lighter. And then, in my two-coloured euphoria, I try an experiment. No gown at all. Naked like the Angel of the North.
So, both dressing-gowns discarded. A grey puddle. A green puddle. I’m a leaping nude, cavorting in front of the fish tank. I don’t see the wife and family behind me. The fish sees. The fish sees them. The fish laughs. Every morning now, the fish laughs. Can’t think why. I’m a great example of evolution. A great example. The wife and kids never mention it. I can see they’re biding their time. I’ve bought a new gownie. Purple. That’ll confuse the finny bugger.

© Ian McMillan 2004

Summer Time

Summer is a time for joining things, for putting your name forward, making your voice heard. Riots usually happen in Summer, demonstrations are certainly not a Winter game. So I’ve joined the New Apostrophe Movement, or to give it its proper title, the Ne’w Apostrop’he M’ovement, or the N’AM. The thing is, I know about apostrophes. I know the difference between its and it’s and frankly, my d’ear, I don’t give a dam’n. I know that people (often Daily Mail readers) get really cross and stamp their delicate feet when they pass a butcher’s shop with a sign in the window saying LAMB CHOP’S and they go into the shop, still stamping their feet so the butcher thinks his space is being invaded by Daily Mail-reading flamenco dancers, and they say, with sarcasm dripping from their voice like molasses ‘What belongs to the lamb chops then ?’ And the butcher says ‘Eh ?’ and the people who are cross about apostrophes say ‘If you put an apostrophe there it means that something belongs to the lamb chops’ and then a regular customer comes in and says ‘I’ll have half a pound of minc’e ‘ and the butcher says ‘See! That’s how we talk round here!’ I confess that for years I was cross about apostrophes and then I woke up in a cold sweat (which is a new kind of quilt we’re developing in Barnsley) and realised that it doesn’t matter. The rules of Grammar aren’t punishable in a court of law. So now I’m liberate’d! I can spend the whole Summer gambolling in the fie’lds and having pi’cn’cs in the grass, drinking w’ine and ch’ompin’g sandwiche’s. And it doesn’t matter! Apostrophes can turn a simple word into an epic. Take egg, for instance. Boring word. But E’gg: delightful! How about E’g’g ? What a big egg! Footprints becomes f’o’o’t’p’r’i’n’t’s and you can see ’em walking across the sand! I’ll. Start. On. The. Fu’ll. S’t’o’p. N’e’x’t …

© Ian McMillan 2001

Fish Time | Summer Time | Winter Boy | Travelling Man | Suspense

Winter Boy

A lot of people like to jet off to the sun. I wouldn’t like to do that. I’d like to jet off to the cold. I’m a Winter Boy, born in January and happy as a snowman when the nights are dark and the wind is howling. As I stand in the bus queue with huddled figures saying ‘Isn’t it cold ?’ with a downward cadence to their voices, I say ‘Isn’t it cold ?’ with an upwards cadence to my voice.

I like the way the wind slaps me in the chops when I step out of the house to get the chilly milk; I like the way I have to watch my step when I’m walking to the Post Office because it might be icy; I like the way the sky opens up and snow pours out of the clouds like dandruff from a scratched head. In a previous life I must have been a Finn, or a Laplander, or an Inuit standing over my father’s ice hole hoping for a glimpse of something fishy.

As global warming takes hold I’m sure that more people will appreciate the Winter for the jewel it is. As the ice caps melt and Malton is by the sea all year and nobody in Britain ever wears a coat from March to November, the idea of Winter will become a sought-after trendy thing. Channel 4, rather than showing endless films of bright young things leaping about in Ibiza, will show endless things of bright blue young things hopping about to keep warm in suddenly-desirable Siberia. People will stand in bus queues sweating, saying ‘Isn’t it hot?’ with a downward cadence to their voices, and when the bus comes and they rattle off to work in steaming offices they’ll dream of the holiday they’ve got booked in the British Antarctic Territory; the snorkel parka and thermals already packed, the snowshoes standing beside the case like tennis rackets, the hot water bottles bulging in the overnight bag.

People will show off frostbite rather than suntan. They’ll show off about the fact that on holiday you can see their breath, even at midday. They’ll prepare for the holiday by opening and closing the fridge door and wafting the cold around them, dreaming of the midnight sun.

Enjoy the Winter while you can. It’s all too short and Summer’s just around the corner with its endless heat and long warm nights with the sunlight pervading everywhere. I’m a Winter Boy.

© Ian McMillan 2000

Travelling Man

This is a true account of what happened. I had to go to Tring, to make poems up with a gang of kids at the Zoological Museum. You know the one. Then later that day I had to go to Wetherby to read poems in the crypt of a church. You know the one. I planned my day. This is a true account. I went for the 0724 X19 bus from Darfield to Doncaster. I met my mate Al. We talked about football. The bus didn’t show up. I rang for a taxi from Speed. I planned my day.

The bus came. Al got on it. The taxi came. I got in it. The taxi bet the bus, just. This is a true account of what happened. The 0808 to Stevenage was late, so I caught it, just. I stood, gasping. The train was made up of lots of little trains. There was no way you could get from one train to the other. ‘You can’t get a cup of tea’ said the guard whose name was Michael, ‘because the buffet’s on the next little train and Stevenage is the first stop.’ I proffered my credit card and said RETURN TO STEVENAGE PLEASE in a voice slightly too loud for the space. Michael said ‘I haven’t got a thing to swipe your card with. It’s in the next little train. I’ll let you off.’ This is a true account. I planned my day.

I travelled in state, free. At Stevenage I was met by a man called Gavin. ‘You like non-league football, don’t you ?’ he said. YES I said, in a voice slightly too loud for the space. ”We’ll squeeze a few in’ he said. This is a true account. We went to Hemel Hempstead Borough, Berkhamsted Town and Tring Town. At each ground I sat and drank in the seats, the grass, the goalposts, the relationship of the sky to the goalposts. I planned my day.

We got to the museum. I made poems with delighted children. Gavin took me back to Stevenage. ‘We’ve got time to squeeze a couple in’ he said. GOOD I said, in a voice slightly too loud for the space. We went to St Alban’s Town and Stevenage Borough. I drank in seats, grass, goalposts, sky/goalposts interface. This is a true account.

I got the train to York. I was to be met there by Margaret who was to take me to Wetherby. The train broke down two miles outside York. A woman on the tannoy said ‘The power has failed.’ A man sitting near me said ‘That is the very worst’. A woman on the tannoy said ‘We are now a failed train’. A woman on the tannoy said ‘We are now a cancelled train’. We sat for two hours. It was getting hot because the air conditioning was off. A woman said to the guard, whose name was Ray, ‘How long will the oxygen last ?’ Ray pretended to consult a thick book. ‘Nine weeks’ he said. This is a true account.

The train got to York. I was met by Margaret. We went to Wetherby. I read poems in a dark church crypt to a small, keen audience. Afterwards a man called Ted gave me a lift home. We stopped for Fish and Chips on the outskirts of Wetherby. We talked about the fact that I might have been the only person in the world who had been to Tring and Wetherby that day. We talked about Stephen Sondheim musicals. I planned my day. This is a true account of what happened.

© Ian McMillan 2000


My wife’s a big fan of suspense novels, whodunnits, mysteries. She loves Inspector Frost on the telly, and she sits there trying to work out who killed whom and with what and at what time. She gets so absorbed in it that I can walk into the room and burst a brown paper bag quite near her head and she doesn’t flinch because she’s in suspense, trying to work out what’s happening. Sometimes I can walk into the room and burst a huge brown paper bag extremely close to her head and she doesn’t flinch because she’s in that strange other country known as Suspense.

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of made-up suspense, or Toy Suspense as I call it. In the mystery book or film or play, there’s no real suspense because the writer and the actors and the director know that it’s just made up. On the other hand, as I stood in the bus shelter today, waiting for the bus to take me to Barnsley, I was in real, not Toy, suspense. It was 7.45am. Would the 7.47am 275 come before the 7.51am 273? Suspense. Which driver would it be? The Happy Geordie? The Nice Old Bloke? The Flying Scot? The Miserable Git With the Rings? Suspense. When the bus came, would there be a seat? Suspense.

I’m like a real Inspector Frost: my life is all suspense. I’m not the only one, either: my goldfish has a life of suspense, partly because it’s got such a short memory span. It swims gently round its bowl all night, in suspense because it doesn’t know if I’ll ever feed it again or not. Each night it forgets who I am. Each morning I come downstairs in my green dressing gown and the suspense is over. The goldfish goes crazy. Well, Goldfish Crazy. It knows I’m there to feed it. Not me exactly, of course: it doesn’t think ‘Ah, here’s Ian McMillan, the well-known poet, performer and broadcaster, with my disgusting smelling flakes’, no, it thinks O O O O, which rendered into English means: ‘Here comes green blob with food’. It thinks I’m a green blob because I always wear my green dressing gown and it recognises me. Sometimes my green dressing gown gets too covered in soup and cheap cider and I have to put it in the wash, and then the goldfish just goes O O O, which of course means something completely different to O O O O.

I’m like the goldfish: my life is suspense, then food. And my mouth is often opening and shutting. Do you know, somebody just burst a small brown paper bag next to my head. I can’t think why.

© Ian McMillan 2000