John Wilks


John Wilks read English at Peterhouse, Cambridge and then taught in inner London for many years. His recent poetry and short stories explore issues of masculinity, from private boarding school to Tower Hamlets comprehensive.

He lives in Greenwich. The extract below is from his memoir Long Time Passing which interweaves an account of  his mother’s last day with childhood stories revealing his relationship with a manic depressive father.


View as PDF: John Wilks - Long Time Passing

Long Time Passing

(Extract 1)

Cold Hands

I found Mum wandering along the street yesterday. It was midnight on Trafalgar Road in Greenwich, but all the lights were out. She was wearing a thin nightdress, the one with faded roses. She had her green Wellington boots on. I pulled up beside her in my car and opened the passenger door. She slid in effortlessly, as if her broken hip were no more than a malicious rumour. I took her back to my house and she didn’t speak a word. She was cold, very cold, and her hands felt bony. I took her up to our bedroom and she stared round at the unfamiliar dark wood paneling. Hadn’t we always had sunny, painted walls before? she asked. I said I thought she might be right. I told her she needed to climb into our big double bed to warm herself up. I suggested to Sally that we put a protective mat on top of the sheets in case of accidents. Sally just raised her eyebrows and turned away. I wondered how we could manage to look after Mum if we didn’t have a mattress protector and how we could get some heat deep down into the centre of her bones and also what I would say to everyone who had been planning to go to the crematorium for her funeral the next day.


Mum has been dead for a month. I see her everywhere. She time-travels effortlessly, materialising in my dreams. I give her a chocolate biscuit or a piece of white bread with the crust cut off and a thick smearing of strawberry jam. I make her tea and am careful to give it to her in the china cup decorated with purple orchids that we bought as a present from Edinburgh. It has a large handle so that the ends of her fingers, which are numb from diabetes, don’t touch the scalding sides. She once had a blister the size of a gooseberry but had no memory of when or how she had burned herself. “Thank you, dear,” she always smiles.


I look out from a minibus in the Peruvian Andes and see slim, elegant vicuña and patches of snow and know that I will never be able to describe this to her. I stop on my bike in the French countryside to take a photo of four brown cows with huge eyes that stare at me over a barbed wire fence and know that I will never share this with her or listen again to stories of Grandpa on the farm.


It is Friday 8th March 2013, a couple of weeks after Mum’s ninety-third birthday. A day that replays itself endlessly in my head.

She is lying on a hospital trolley, propped up on pillows. There is a tube coming out of her arm attached to a drip. Her white hair is thin and uncombed. She is wearing a hospital gown which fits badly and slips down at the front. A nurse comes in to feel the pulse on her wrist and to put a thermometer in her ear. Her eyes open for a few minutes and she looks round at the bare walls of the Accident and Emergency room. She moves her arm so that the tube which is feeding fluids and antibiotics to her dehydrated, infected body becomes kinked and the drip drip drip slows and stops. I am holding her hand and change the position of her arm so that the flow resumes. It is 3.00 a.m. and I am tired. She sighs a little and drifts into a shallow, regular breathing that signifies sleep. I speak to the nurse and am reassured they will look after her, check the drip is working properly, phone me if there is a problem. I stay for another five minutes, then put a hand to her head and explain I have to go, she will be fine, I have work to do in the morning, a school to visit, pupils to examine, but I will phone the hospital first to check she is ok. She murmurs, turns to face me and smiles, and I go.

On the ten minutes drive home through the dark I am a five year old again. I am lying in bed tucked up under sheets and a heavy blanket. There is only a sliver of light between the curtains. The door is closed after I have been kissed goodnight and the window is open so that I will grow up big and strong. I pull the sheets and blankets tightly round me. My face is turned to the cool of the wall and I am crying, silently, because I have today realised that my mum and dad, especially my mum, will die one day. I do not know how I will ever cope with this. I can imagine no consolation. The teddy bear on the pillow next to me does not tell me what to do. Where has this thought of death come from? Maybe it was the loss of the guinea pig who lived in the hutch in the garden or the goldfish that I won at a fairground or Joey the budgerigar who my parents brought back from a pub lottery? This is the worst thing that has happened to me in my short life. Now, fifty-five years later, the event that has haunted me for so long may be upon me. There are darker thoughts behind this memory too, hidden and unspoken. The understanding that I too will die one day.

My mother and I have become physically very close these past months. We have both had to conquer embarrassment. When I lift Mum up in bed with the carer to make her more confortable, when I help her to change her nightdress, I am confronted with her nakedness. When I put my hand on her back to steady her it feels strong. Her back and thighs are surprisingly smooth and firm, not an old woman’s body at all. This is the first time I can remember seeing her breasts and the skin below her navel. How deceptive her wrinkled face and heavily bruised hands and ankles have been!

Two Green Cars

At the beginning of Great Expectations Pip talks about his “first and most vivid impression of the identity of things …. gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening”:

“At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

I love that long, elaborate sentence with its compound clauses and grown-up words and scary vision of the power of the elements. There is something beautiful and compelling about the way it homes in inexorably on that little word “Pip”. It’s such a wonderful evocation of a moment of self-realisation, the time when you first understand that you are you, and a very little you, and everything else is a frightening enormous other. When third person becomes first person. Or is it the other way round?


There is a toy car big enough to ride in. It is green and made of hard metal. It has pedals that he puts his feet on. If he pushes down with one foot and then the other the car trundles forward, or backward, depending on, well he never quite understands that part. Anyway, there is a toy car that is his car and there is a gravel path beneath a high wall that stretches up into the sky, so high that to see the topmost line of red bricks against the scudding clouds he has to bend his head back until his neck is all scrunched up, and if he falls over on this path it hurts his knees and they sometimes bleed. But there is always a mother with soft cheeks and strong hands to pick him up and cuddle him. There is no father.

He finds himself in a poorly lit room with heavy curtains and dark brown furniture. He doesn’t know how he got to be there. He supposes his mother left him there and that she must have had a good reason to do so. There is a large vase on the floor in the corner that is as high as he is. There is a plant with arching stalks that is always there waiting for him, next to a hollowed-out elephant’s foot that holds a black umbrella. There is a grey-haired man who bounces him on his knee and makes him laugh by pretending to drop him and then tickling him. This is definitely not his father. There is no father.

Behind the front door of this man’s flat is a bare staircase with a handrail that curves round to the other floors below and above. At the bottom of the stairwell where it is cold and cobwebby there lives a rat which his mother says has to be cornered by a broomstick otherwise it will bite him with its sharp yellow teeth and make him very poorly indeed and it would be better to never ever try to get past this rat to the door that leads out into the back garden and the road that runs alongside the house where he could so easily get knocked down by a car and he wouldn’t like that, would he?

Sometimes there is another man. He has a big car which is green like the boy’s car. It has big silver lights that would burn his eyes if he looked directly into them when they are turned on. He knows he must never ever do this. There is a running board along each side that he has to climb on to get inside. The man likes to stand next to his car, next to the boy standing next to the boy’s car. He is known as Daddy. There is no father.


I often search for this Pip moment of mine, an unsettling memory of being alone with my pedal car beneath the huge wall that separated the flats and front garden where we lived from Browett’s Garage near the roundabout by Victoria Park in Leicester. The son of the owner of this garage, Jim Browett, was to become my mother’s close and intimate friend fifty years later, but that’s another story.

I adored my mother. She used to play a game when I got out the bath. She wraps me in a large towel and tells me I am in a lift in a department store. She rubs my body under the towel and makes a whirring noise. “Going up, first floor, ladies’ clothes,” and she parts the towel in front of my face and surprises me.

“Do you want to get out?”

“No!” I shout and the towel closes again.

“Going up, second floor, kitchens and bathrooms, do you want to get out?”

“No!” I shout again, excited by this familiar routine.

“Going up, third floor, toy cars and soldiers, now do you want to get out?”

“Yes, yes!” and I step out of my towel lift, dry and warm and ready to be put into my pyjamas and carried to bed.

Thirty years later, I will find myself sitting on the edge of a bath with an enormous blue bath towel covering the little pink body of my own son. “Cuddly toys and Sesame Street videos! Now do you want to get out?” I will remember how it feels to be a passenger under the soft heavy cotton. It will be like discovering a forgotten present at the back of a drawer.

Sometimes my mother takes me to the Leicester City museum. She walks across Victoria Park with me in a pushchair, down a long, shaded avenue of trees to a white Art Deco building where goldfish swim in a marble pool at the bottom of a wide curving staircase. I have never seen anything so mysterious and want to touch the shiny scales that glide towards me then twitch suddenly to change direction. I lean over the smooth edge of the pool to dip my fingers in the water, balanced against the gentle pull of the reins held by my mother. I do not want to see anything else in this echoing space. Just those golden shapes moving under the water, making my reflection shimmer. There is a small fountain in the middle that splashes delicately.

When I am four I am naughty for the first time. I crawl out of my bedroom in the early morning along the corridor to my parents’ room. The door is slightly open so I push it carefully and go round the end of the bed on my hands and knees to my mother’s side nearest the window. It is light outside but the curtains are still drawn. I look up at the magic mirror on her dressing table which has three panels. If I stand in front of this I can make three laughing heads wobble from side to side but I know that would wake them so I keep low and slide under their bed. My face rests against the carpet which smells of dust. I hope there aren’t any spiders under here. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. Above me one of them turns over and the sheets and blankets rustle. I listen very carefully in case one of them speaks. I don’t know why I am doing this. I am scared but somehow pleased with myself. It will be fun to surprise them. Maybe it’s a bit like the towel lift game. They will think I’m very grown-up to play a trick on them like this. Maybe. I’m not sure. I wonder if I could go back to my bedroom without being discovered. I shuffle over to my father’s side of the bed which is nearer the door.

When his feet land on the carpet a few inches from my face my voice shouts “boo!” He leans down to find me and pull me out by my arm.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing down there? You made your mother jump, you stupid boy. Haven’t I told you you must always knock on a door before going in, especially a bedroom door? You must never ever do that again. Do you understand?”

“He was only playing, Peter, he’s just a child,” my mother says quietly.

He walks out to the bathroom and I hear him pissing loudly and then the sound of water filling up the basin and a cabinet being opened. I know he will be shaving.

I get into the warm bed with my mother and she puts an arm round me. When my father comes back he doesn’t look at us. He turns his back and steps out of his pyjamas and into his underpants and trousers. I am intrigued by a brief glimpse of his testicles but know better than to say anything. Or laugh. He goes downstairs and my mother follows him to sort out breakfast. I stay in bed waiting to hear the front door close. Eventually it does and the day belongs to me and my mother.

(Extract 2)

No Horizon

My father was always a stranger to me. In the evenings and at weekends he made things on his workbench in the garage or mowed the lawn or dug the vegetable patch. When I was little he was the vacant chair at the kitchen table. He was the scraping of a key in the front door after I had gone to bed. He was the row of starched white shirts flapping on the washing line that overhung the path to the lonely sandpit at the bottom of the garden.

As I grew older these emptinesses were slowly filled with his angry presence, like grotesque shapes and lurid colours emerging unexpectedly from a photographer’s developing tray. I started to be ambushed by raised voices at night, to watch with surprise how his fingers tapped uncontrollably on the arm of his chair, to be startled by him banging on the bathroom wall if I made a mistake while practising my piano scales in the adjacent spare room.


He is lying on a hospital trolley, breathing faster than normal. He knows what they will do next and how it will feel. He looks round at the doctor who has a white coat and a stethoscope hanging round his neck and at the young pretty nurses who wear crisp blue and white uniforms with their hair bunched up under neat white caps. They are talking quietly to each other. The nurses smell of soap and they rest gentle hands on his arms and legs, and somewhere in the background his wife is watching, her strong arms clasped across her chest and her trembling hands pressed against herself. She watches his face. She does not smile.

They place a large rubber gumshield in his mouth that covers his teeth and presses down on his tongue so that he has to strain a little to breathe through his nose. They place a solid rubber cylinder, like a policeman’s truncheon, in his hands. They smooth his hair away from his forehead, the way his mother once used to do, and smear a film of sticky liquid on both temples. He remembers how he had once puzzled about the origins of this word temple. He’s not sure what the connection is between a spot on the side of his head where some people experience throbbing migraines and a place of religious worship. He cannot imagine anyone bowing down before his skull. In the encyclopedia it says the bone here is only twice the thickness of eggshell and he hopes it is not about to crack open and let all his treacherous, slimy black thoughts ooze out.

They ask him if he is ready and he nods and grunts through the rubber and then the two cold, metal electrodes are held firmly against his head, a switch behind him is clicked on and it starts. A sizzling jolt of electricity surges through his brain. White-hot soldering iron vaporising delicate grey sponginess. They are melting the connections that have tangled his thoughts, that for years have sent them sparking off out of control down unexpected neural pathways. His back arches, his knees jerk up, his head is thrown back, his teeth bite down so hard that his tongue might have been severed if it were not for the solid rubber shield, his eyes clamp tight squeezing out tears that trickle down the sides of his face. These seconds spread out like a burning desert with no horizon. To the nurses and to his wife it looks like he is holding on for dear life but he cannot control any part of himself, not his arms or legs, not his hands or feet. He cannot think even. There is no retreat into memory, no words to summon his mother to cradle him.

And then the shaking. Rhythmic. Relentless. Every atom of his body hardwired to this whiplash jerking and shuddering. Like the snapping out of the moisture in the creases on a rippling damp sheet. Crack! Crack! Twice a second. On and on. Until he is all snapped out and there is nothing of him left. Crack! Crack! Crack! On and on and on. It is forever. Until he doesn’t even know it is happening to him, he doesn’t even know that he is he.