Ashes

in memory of my mother

 

 

This poem was runner up in the Arvon International Poetry Competition, 1992

A house can be haunted by those who were never there

                  if there was where they were missed.

                              Louis Macneice,  Selva Oscura

 

                  if there was where they were missed.

         And the blind walls crumble, unknown, o’erthrown,
           And none shall inhabit again!

                    Rudyard Kipling, Letting in the Jungle


 

I

Hillsbrow Preparatory School for Boys:

the house is gone and stars of cowparsely

stand on what was once cricket pitch. A noise

 

of wind through trees, rock-cake-like masonry,

tiles, nettles, blackberry brambles, a glow

along a loop of gossamer, suddenly

 

breaking off, starting again.  Amo,

amas, amat,  the endings and no name

         for who is loved or whom, and root to know

        

         by heart.  You never came. You always came.

As red as this red thorn your hair was red

here where the dorm was, where you reach the same

 

white gloves across the dark inside my head

as if it isn’t you but me who’s dead 

 

 


 

II

The entrance to the drive where taxis came

calls with the birds beyond WINSOME AND FEIGHT

FOR SALE NO TRESPASSING.  Into the lane

 

below the school fields, then,  over the gate,

wade up  through this once chin-high swaying hill

of grass into the grounds,  to this estate

 

of dead leaves like cornflakes, the night-dress frill

of foxgloves, thorns squealing my anorak,

a broken post, a rusted window grille,

 

this castle to which you may not come back,

but from whose boundaries you’ll never err,

where  you must learn to mourn for lack with lack -

 

here, in this thin green air and tang of fir,

as then, a trespasser,  a trespasser.

 

 

 

 

 


 

III

Here Mr Weeks stood at a blackboard set

against the hatch in the refectory

and chalked the perfect forms our souls forget

 

as soon as born, he said. Geometry,

it brings us to our innocence again,

and we are safe in it. There’s certainty.

 

The axioms are wired into the brain

and nerves and don’t need any other proof.

They lengthen through diagonals of rain

 

like bright piano wires,  the spider's woof

and weft,  the  lines that narrow through the sleet

beyond the dripping railway station roof

 

towards this spot where they will always meet

however much the curved in lips entreat.

 

 


 

IV

Who sewed the shield and motto to my breast

and forehead, you or they?  It’s not escape

at all,  is it?  Fern and foxglove,  the gold-crest

 

and the jay, the creatures this landscape

conjures like Mowgli whose own hairless coat

of skin he thought was just another shape

 

of wolf, who learned to turn his human throat

to languages that neither beast nor child

can really learn. Look well, o wolves!  The note

 

Miss Wilson cries across the desktops filed

with old initials that slowly begin,

as it goes on,  to look more gnarled and wild,

 

is your note, is the grass, nettles, ruin,

the jungle that has long since been let in.

 

 


 

V

A lease long since expired.  A ghost with freckles,

school cap, and a squeaky handled suitcase.

He watches from the rhododendron petals

 

and smacks of  drips.  He's never seen my face

although my face is his, and never can

because he never left this magic space

 

to be the man it made of him, the man

he is,  child as he is,  lord in his fief

of overgrown dogtracks, a Tammylan

 

with brown fingers who plucks the secret leaf

to grind  inside his cave, the cure that dries

all tears, transforms all memory, turns grief

 

into this bank, these hieroglyphs in line

some coot has printed in its blinding shine.


 

VI

Our homesickness¸ said Mr Seale, we know

our souls through that.  It makes us strong.  His eyes

had lifted from the bedtime book. And so

 

we don’t have lullabies, no lullabies

at Hillsbrow School.  We grinned, wet parted hair,

pyjamas, slippers under beds, and cries

 

of owls beyond the open windows where

Lost Jungle City was.  Goodnight, he said,

his hand up to the switch, and vanished there.

 

And in the darkness just above my head

tears balanced on your eyes as if in some

spotlight, but now for me alone instead.

 

And so there was a lullaby, then, Mum.

You sang it without knowing that you’d come.

 

 


 

VII

And now it’s your turn to be left. Don’t care

what happens to them, dear.  Throw them away,

it doesn’t matter, throw them anywhere.

 

It’s just the thought of being trapped all day

and night under the grass down there inside

a box, that’s all.  And for gawdsake don’t pray,

 

dear, will you?  No.  There’ll be no gospel ride,

for all the chapel anthems, Mum.  There’ll be

no train hooting to take you on its wide

 

and shining gauge, only the ash, only

a choke and chug of smoke, a pulling slow

away, a sudden clank of hooks, a Cheeri

 

as you fall back from the carriage window,

lost on red lips in a perfect – o.


 

VIII

You’ll never know just how much I love you.

The tape if I could play it now would stir

the same vibrations as it did once through

 

a hall, across these wet bedsprings whose rust

gleams like red hair, across the bits of stone,

the blackberries, the particles of dust

 

that twirl in these shafts here as in a cone

of spotlight, and the sound of wind through trees

turns into interference now,  the tone

 

the same, and Dad’s soft fingers on the keys.

I speak your name -  same height, same length and depth

and frequency of it, same little breeze

 

blown from your lips into my ear from death,

same with my every - lost in hissing - breath.

 

 


 

IX

A S Neill once wrote that homesickness

is longing, not for what is missed, but what

in fact was never there, an emptiness,

 

like someone’s intimacy in a spot

light on a stage. The only words of yours,

almost, that I remember now, were not

 

your words at all,  but Tin Pan Alley scores,

the clichés of the year, however sad

or beautiful the yous and evermores

 

that you  implored the darkness with, or glad

your smile through the applause, lost in the part,

the wonder of the empathy you had,

 

which I can share, which I too learnt by heart,

the you it speaks to absent from the start.


 

X

Not true.  Not quite.  You always talked of him,

of  Daddy,  how he used to wave his stick

and shout in hotel foyers, how his grin

 

would come close to your cheek, the little tic                   

it had, his little eyes, how as he died

you sang Abide with Me outside his sick-

 

room window till somebody touched your side

and you could stop, and watch the sprays of hair

among the pillows moving still, and cried

 

seeing that headmistress, hearing the blare

of his old fashioned horn between the cool

horse chestnut trees, removing you from where

 

you’d loved it – hockey, cricket, swimming pool  -

because he wasn’t there:  your boarding school.

 

 

 


 

XI

Again I leave the ward and look out through

the windscreen at the bluebells on the grass,

again see Sister’s eyes.  She’d thought I knew

 

that if you went home it would be to pass

your last few weeks with him. It would be sad

to separate them, she said in that glass

 

cubicle with its desk and stubby pad

of death certificates. It would be cruel

too, hopeless as he seems to have been, Dad,

 

at coping as she put it. But you, you’ll…

won’t you?   I’ll what?  I nodded though. Yes, I...

Bluebells like bluebells in the woods at school.

 

And then from Fratton Park a massive sigh

filling the clouds and draining down the sky.


 

XII

The photo of you with the cricket bat,

white trousers and white shirt at some school game

fools people and they think it’s me,  with that

 

hair level with your collar,  just the same

cut as a nineteen sixties one,  same nose,

same gaze, I saw myself in when it came

 

out of the page towards me from a photo

in a paper showing some Zaria-

Jos rugby match,  fixed as their hooker throws

 

into the line-out, and I’m crouching near

the lens before the catch and maul and surge,

same prepschool fly-half still,  agile in fear,

 

as boys, fathers, masters, all yell and urge

along the touchlines.  There our faces merge.

 

 


 

XIII

I came back all the way from Africa

because of your small cough as you put it,

came as if from school towards the flicker

 

of the waves through a train window, lit

illuminations, fish and chips and spray

along the seafront. My seasons still fit

 

into the round of term and holiday,

but now it wasn’t coming back, or home

(dogs barking, teacups, lawn), although I’d say

 

that it’s almost as far as from this Boys Own

Paper empire I once used to rule,

that I’ve come now, from where I live, am known,

 

loved even, as a stranger,  that white fool

professor always going back to school.

 


 

XIV

I shake the ashes out and watch them fly,

hang for a moment in the late sunshine,

fall shiveringly.  I brought them here for my

 

sake, Mum, and for this green air and this fine

as powder kind of long drawn out half-lit

but never quite known grief, never quite mine

 

at all, not even here in this PRIVATE

KEEP OUT site where the specks just disappear

into the bracken, willowherb, no secret

 

little ritual except to hear

the ordinary blackbirds start to cry.

Never love anybody too much, dear,

 

you said, red lips against my brow so dry

they’d never leave a mark.  In case they die.

 

 


 

XV

Your voice on my cassette fills up the sky

that you’d have seen together, driving back,

your traffic lights, your dusk, your rain, your cry

 

of gulls,  your sea, your smell of bladder-wrack,

an arc of coloured lights around a bay,

your lit up pier like strung out pearls, your black

 

brows in the mirror framed with bulbs, your tray

of make-up sticks, the tabs, top hats, fishnet,

your glistening lips that mine would mime the way

 

I mime them with you now watching the wet

verges twist and flee soundlessly back through

the tunnel that my headlamps make,  and get

 

the empty words as word perfect as you,

and every single note of it, yes,  true.

 


 

 


 

  Tammylan:   the ‘wild man’ in Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm

 

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