In the interval the young man says something and laughs
and beside him the young woman laughs also.
She moves in her seat closer
to him in his seat. Newlyweds, their story
is a story in progress, told now in the way
he lays one hand on the back of her neck,
checks his phone with the other hand,
and the way she inclines her body towards him.
Because she wants him to be proud of her
she reads in the programme the essay – Essences
and essentials, the French horn’s musical stories.
She rises to buy an ice cream, thinking,
as she stands patiently in the long queue,
how clever the ice cream tubs are,
the spoon not separate,
but carried inside,
thinking she’d like soon to try for a baby.
It’s delicious, the ice cream. Caramel Chew Chew.
Beside him again she is enjoying it more even
(this she doesn’t mention), than the first half of the concert.
How sweet, the caramel on her tongue, travelling
slowly down into her throat
and down into her body.
Leaning to speak to her, he says, You need to watch that.
I don’t want you putting on any more weight.
I don’t want you putting on any more weight, she says
in her head, then says it in her head again, trying
to remember the exact tone of his voice,
knowing tone is important.
The strength of her, in her velvet chair,
gifted with composure. She finishes the ice cream
completely, attentive now to the music
rising once more towards heavy cornicing,
the restrained opening bars, the elevations.
I was thirteen. It was autumn. It was
around the time they let us wear earrings.
Miss Morel asked me to stay behind
after the lesson please for a word.
A blackboard, six rows of desks, a gizzard
tank, earthworms warming in a compost bin.
Here were diagrams of body parts
made mutant by instruction
pinned to the abbey’s damp classroom wall
which seemed to be trying to dislodge
the monstrous ear and inner ear,
the uterus, the absurd eyeball,
and the heart, its thick paths
needled by labels I didn’t understand:
pulmonary vein, aortic vein,
left ventricle, inferior vena cava.
“I’m afraid your father has … collapsed.”
And then there was a sort of dance
of inference between us.
I took two steps towards Miss Morel,
said oh but he, he would be alright.
Miss Morel took two steps back,
shook her long pinned up mane of grey,
said oh no, oh no, she couldn’t say
if he would be alright.
And Miss Morel was wiping down the board,
and I was staring out of the window.
Surely it was raining, water from the gutters
stammering against the abbey walls,
the distant oak tree braced for loss.
Even now I’m unsure how my other life,
the life I lived for half the year,
its clinging certainties and comforts, came to land
in Miss Morel’s cartoon bony-old hands,
which returned it to me that day as something
dubious, and always, always now, faltering.
Later, when all the school was sleeping,
high up in the bathroom above the dormitory,
Anna and I soaked a needle in vodka,
held out first one earlobe then
another earlobe for piercing.
I remember the cotton wool, the ice,
the four twinkling gold studs,
and the hard journey of that needle,
the way Anna had to work
to thread each lobe, tug and push,
tug and push, as if the needle
was blunter than we’d imagined.
How hushed we were, speaking in whispers,
admiring the new narrow glamour
of our ears in the bathroom mirror.
Hemmed in by the mineral scent
of the abbey’s antique plumbing,
we stayed there long into the night,
drinking ice and vodka, dabbing
our weeping ears with cotton wool.
Although this walk we’re on is a moving on, inside us
there’s still bad news. Pulled from the wood burning stove
by the promise of spectacle, we find the view here
deserted of people. It’s penetrating, primeval, like a scene
from a children’s picture book of a time before children.
Not talking, not touching, the five of us follow the dog
down the high ridge to the dunes and down from the dunes
to the beach, where it hesitates, this silence between us.
Here to see the geese, it’s the whippet we watch
running into and out of the sea, half-coward, half-warrior,
unsure of the shoreline water’s advance retreat,
advance retreat. The waves that break
under the dog’s feet uplift with each return
a hymn to something lost and wanted still. The waves
are measured, decisive, a sort of grief contained.
Strands of geese mirror silver alleys carved into the sand,
and there are fingers of creeks the Vikings might have seen
(Holkham being a Viking word – ship town, although today
we can see no ships on the sea, only the sun’s glitter
and phantom turbines like white memorials
where water spills over the horizon). In the morning sun
the sequins on Linda’s red scarf shine as she bends
to pocket whelk scraps, pebbles licked clean by the tide,
pearl-white razor shells like polished finger nails,
gifts for her only surviving daughter.
When she looks up and says, How beautiful,
it seems she means – how can a place like this,
the sea, the wider sky and light, especially the light,
with friends who are our dearest friends, not solace us.
Now the pink feet are rising over the sugar field,
the whole community of them; they throng and shout
and babble and do their silver dance of a thousand wings
as if, for this instant at least, they have nowhere
to journey to. I’ve read my book of geese, know about
the muscled distances travelled, the harsh terrain
and deaths along the way, how the warmth of one bird
is transmuted through air to another, wingbeats
making uplift to ease the bird behind. They say
if a goose sickens and strays, others from the formation
will pull back to help it, will stay with it until it recovers.
We turn up the beach; we’re talking now, not touching,
though we carry the weight of each other inside us:
our bones, our joints, the thin, worn conduits of sorrow
and hope and companionship. There are a few geese
directly overhead. How small we must seem,
our group below with the dog. Fields that stretch forever.
A sprawl of dark nineteenth century pines.
Beige sand, ancient salt marsh, sea. A flash
of red from Linda’s scarf like an open
red flower on the beach.
Mel Pryor’s pamphlet, Drawn on Water, was published in 2014 and her first full collection, Small Nuclear Family, in October 2015, both by Eyewear. She won the 2015 Philip Larkin Poetry Prize.