The following poem is a completely true story. It happened to me two years ago, in Heaton, near Newcastle city centre, while I was on my way to work:
What I saw that day was
very difficult to explain.
Nothing quite compares
to the image of a deer
running into a licence plate shop.
I thought it was a dog,
as it shot across the busy street
causing a white van to screech to a stop.
this was an actual deer,
in a busy inner city suburb,
bolting towards the glass door,
pushing it open with its horns,
I remember getting off my bike.
I remember rushing over to the window,
the deer, pogoing around the small square of floor;
the licence plates on the walls;
the shopkeeper behind the counter
frozen in disbelief,
his big toe standing on a very sharp pin.
A boy and girl of about my age ran over.
I remember saying something like:
“Maybe we should call the RSPCA?”
The girl suggested she call the police,
I’ll never forget the sound of that voice on the phone:
basically, this deer’s just gone
pure akka and ran into a licence plate shop in Heaton.”
There was a very big pause.
It was at the door now,
gazing at me
with eyes like dark sides of the moon.
It began frantically trying to escape,
rushing into the glass,
over and over and over;
it bust its nose,
a brush leaving a thick stroke of blood.
I felt every single thud.
What exactly does one do
when a deer runs into a licence plate shop?
What is the protocol for this scenario?
I looked around,
No one had the answer.
So we all just…
watched it happen.
I suppose that’s how it goes.
Mankind is born free and is everywhere in chains…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.
They fuck you up your Mum and Dad…
like a deer in a licence plate shop.
As the rescue team arrived,
I realised we are all deer,
perpetually running into licence plate shops of our own making-
we are bears in office blocks,
giraffes in portacabins,
But, sooner or later,
we’re going to take the wrong turn,
get trapped in something we can’t possibly understand,
seize up in the headlights,
or run desperately into the glass.
I’ve wanted to take a copy of this poem back to the licence plate shop for a long time. It’s probably the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I felt like the man in the shop might understand. In a perfect world, I would have written it in the days following the event and done it then. But, as I’m sure you can appreciate, it was all a bit confusing, and it took me about a year to really process what happened here.* By the time I’d finished the poem, it felt like the moment had passed.
However, in the year since then, I’ve had a couple of strange encounters that have persuaded me to do it. What never made it into the poem was the fact that, as we were all panicking and wondering exactly what to do, two ladies dressed in multicoloured pyjamas came running out of a café across the road. They went straight into the licence plate shop, one covered the deer’s face with a scarf and the other wrestled it to the ground.
What initially looked quite violent was actually an amazing act of heroism. The deer lay there, still kicking, but in relative safety. Without those ladies, I don’t know if it would have been alive by the time the rescue team arrived.
Last March, I got commissioned by Radio 3’s ‘The Verb’ to perform a new piece in front of an audience at the Sage Gateshead. The night before, the producer got in touch to ask if I had a second poem they could record at the end. I picked the one about the deer. After the show, a man came running over to tell me his wife, who was also in the audience, WAS ONE OF THE LADIES WHO HAD RESCUED THE DEER! But in all of the post-gig commotion, I never got a chance to go and find her.
Months later, I was sat in the café across the road from the licence plate shop. I was explaining the whole event to a friend, when a lad working there chipped in: “I wasn’t there but I heard about it,” he said. “It’s become like an urban legend.” A customer on the table next to us then joined in and said he’d also heard about it.
It made me wonder how many people still talked about this. Maybe it wasn’t too late after all? Last Wednesday, I had a day off and I decided it couldn’t hurt to try. On a cold winter afternoon, I printed out some copies of the poem and set off down the road.
Some people find it hard to believe that there’s even such a thing as a licence plate shop. There is. It’s called Alidrew and it’s on Heaton Road. As I walk towards the door, I feel nervous. My head is filled with questions. Will the same shopkeeper be there? Does he even still work here? What if he’s left the job and there’s no way of contacting him? What if the new shopkeeper has no idea what I’m talking about? If it turns out they don’t know anything about this, I couldn’t make myself look more insane if I tried.
I open the door and step inside. It’s a little space, no bigger than a kitchen. It’s quiet. There’s one man stood at the counter in a black jacket, waiting to be served. After a few seconds, a lady with long brown hair comes out from the back. “Hello, do you know anything about a deer that ran in here about 2 years ago?” I ask.
“Were you there?”
“Yes!” By this point, a young man has come out of the back as well.
“I was there!” he says. “I was the one who helped wrestle it to the ground!”
This is Louise, and her son Connor. She’s run this family business along with her husband, Paul, for 40 years. I explain that I was there too, that I did a poem about it on the radio. “My Grandma heard that!” says Connor. “She phoned me to say ‘Remember when the deer ran into the shop? This lad has just done a poem on the radio about the exact same thing! It must have happened to someone else too!’ I was Googling it and searching for ages but I couldn’t find anything.”
I’m now very pleased I decided to do this. They begin to fill me in on the story from their side of the glass. “We didn’t know what to do,” says Louise. “We couldn’t get anyone to take it. We phoned the police. They said ‘Can you describe the deer?’ I said ‘Yeah, it’s got ears… and hoofs. Y’know? It’s a deer.’ They said ‘We can’t take that. It’s not our job’ and told us to try the RSPCA. The RSPCA said they were too busy and told us to try the vets, but the vets all wanted too much money. In the end, it was a policeman across the road who helped. He was getting a sandwich and he came over and radioed for the police vet.”
Then Louise breaks the bad news. “Do you know what happened to it? Well… it got put down. They said it was a brain hemorrhage.” This is really hard to hear. I can’t help but think that, if I had of ran in and done something, it might not have happened. But then, nobody really knew what to do. And Louise explains that one of the ladies in the pyjamas who did help turned out to be a veterinary assistant, hence why she seemed so incredibly skilled at dealing with the situation.
I wonder what the odds are of a veterinary assistant being nearby at such an unlikely event? It’s got to be a million to one. And I can find some solace in the fact that the deer probably got as lucky as it was going to get in this respect.
“There was blood all up the walls,” says Louise. “You can still see the marks on the door. The thing that got me is, there was a lady with a dog who was trying to get in and buy a licence plate when all this was going on! I said ‘You can’t fit in the shop’. She complained and said ‘Fine, I’ll have to come back later then!’”
The conversation turns, as it usually does, to where we think the deer came from. “I think it came from the park,” says Connor. “But it was running from the other direction. So maybe it went down one way and then turned around.” But what’s confusing is, in the whole 10 years I’ve lived in Heaton, 5 minutes from the park, I’ve never once seen a deer. I ask Connor if he’s ever seen one there. He says no. It’s all still a bit of a mystery. “It was the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I reckon I’ve got more chance of winning the lottery than that ever happening again.”
I read my poem out and offer them both a copy. They seem pleased. “Thanks for that,” says Louise. “I’ll show that to my Mam, she’ll really enjoy it. The only bit I don’t think she’ll enjoy is the swear word,” she laughs. To return the favour, Connor gives me an Alidrew branded baseball cap, which I doff as we get a picture together.
I say goodbye and head out of the licence plate shop. It’s been good to talk to some people who were actually there when this happened. I feel like I’ve been to a support group for freak events. I head home, with the distinct sense that something has come to a close.
*It was on an Arvon course in Shropshire last year where I was encouraged to write a poem about this. I’m really grateful to everyone who was there for giving me the support I needed to do it, especially Caroline Bird for the advice, and Matt Miller for helping me edit it. In fact, Matt and Eleanor Penny, who was also on the course, wrote their own response to the story. I leave you with those words:
13 Ways Of Looking At A Deer In A Licence Plate Shop
After Wallace Stevens (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45236)
A man panics at a deer in his licence plate shop. A deer panics at a licence plate in the forest – the unattended scent of man.
Officials on the scene declared officially that physics disobeyed would have vengeance on D33R.
I will hold my cool hands to the rough of your forehead. I will buy for you a whole world of licence plates, if that will heal you.
Oh poet, why do you stand aghast astride a bicycle at such an ordinary thing? You have flown here. Do you not see here too a creature ramming its face into the destiny of its limbs?
Tasked by the homing wilderness to return triumphant with a torn off piece of human worlds – or not at all.
Metal. Rivet. Fur. Paint. Tooth. Glass. Blood. I will take a handful of these things and close my eyes and cast them up into the air so that they land exactly as they must.
It wanted numbers to say ‘you’ to its rust brown back, unseen in the indifferent forest.
It wanted numbers it could understand.
Must a deer have a licence plate to shop? Is a licence plate shop a shop without a deer?
I did not know the licence plate shop until I saw it buck and scream. I did not see the deer until I saw it flown again and again into the licence plate shop windows, bucking and screaming.
Life contains multitudes. The licence plate shop contains a deer, the eye of which contains a deer in a licence plate shop.
Among all things, a licence plate shop. Among all licence plate shops, a deer. Among all deers, the eye in which you stand, amazed.
Sometimes I feel like a deer in a licence plate shop. Sometimes the deer in the licence plate shop feels like me. Sometimes the licence plate shop feels like me in a deer. All eventualities are eventualities.
Do you not see how the deer in the licence plate shop
Is soothed under the multicoloured scarf
Of the hippies about you?
Matt Miller and Eleanor Penny