Ridge Walking with Maddy
From somewhere up ahead a voice I know
but haven’t heard before calls back encouragement:
the moves are easy, the view worth dying for.
This is a route I always wished I’d done.
I’m 96 and dead a good few years.
My guide’s a girl with whom I share my genes.
She’s taken pity, dragged me
from the tedium of history.
Each side of this long-dreamt-of ridge
the known world drops away. She links an arm in mine
and once again I get that knife-edge feeling
as the will to fly competes with gravity.
Now she’s reminding me of whimsical ideas
I used to fill her head with as a child – how wind-farms
manufactured weather, or frogs were the souls
of mismatched lovers. As if I might remember.
All that’s gone, though by now she knows herself
how little reality the adult world can bear.
I’m about to tell her it’s good to be alive again,
when she throws a sidelong glance my way.
My heart’s all feathers, my voice a raven’s croak.
‘There’ one of us shouts and we catch
his swoop, spring to the window
time and time again as if each glimpse
accumulates to build a whole
indelible vision. For a week now
he’s quartered the field at breakfast,
white owl-form tinged with gold
– hunger risking daylight, barnfast perhaps
these nights of downpour too heavy
for fine feathers – marking the day
like an omen, what’s to come,
the floodbound week ahead
with its power cuts, strandings,
the mere events of a world
beyond rapt moments watching him hover,
dive, return to the same fence-post,
precarious reclusive neighbour
rendering us intruders as he works
the sweeps and coverts of the land.
The Lepers’ Door
(St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere)
We come down from the crags, the wastes, our hovel colonies
just out of sight – the stumps of our limbs, the flesh betrayed.
We’re here at the side door waiting for the nave to empty.
We dream of the old life and hunger for the one hereafter.
We have no currency today – untouchable, unclean.
O cleanse us father, fill the holes in our bodies with the host.
From the shelf inside the door, we’ll pick up whatever you offer
– food, old clothes, messages from family – then slip away,
wraiths, imagine the sacrament’s tang on our tongues
reminding our souls of our selves. Each daybreak our poverty
offers itself to the light, the light that renews all. We look
to the hills and they keep us here. Our prayers go unheard:
may the wind, burling down, pass through us,
may the sun leave no shadow behind us;
may the wafers of clouds be our bodies made spirit.
They came down from the north
wind-figures crossing the skyline
on the look-out for strays or rustled beasts
now dyed with another’s mark.
They came down through the borders,
the porous and mutable borders where
where you come from
is never where you find yourself.
They appeared among us, disguised
as themselves, unfamiliar meat on their breath,
body odour the sweat of the road.
They were all chants and songs,
a way with difficult instruments, words
we had no words for, tunes
we couldn’t dislodge from our heads.
They brought with them woven lengths
the colour of the hills; sea-salt, silver,
ship-wreck gold, strong liquor.
They checked out our crops,
rolled oats in their palms,
blew the chaff, chewed the grains.
They were seen pacing out hedgerows.
They came, familiar – and how –
handshake friendly, all blather and charm.
We offered them shelter.
They stayed, bedded down,
got under our skin,
strangers turned into ourselves,
the making of us.
Believe me, it only takes a sound, the workhorse
rhythm of diesel, say, bringing to mind
an old Fordson in a years-ago yard and before I know it
I’m up the garden path to a front porch smothered
in fuschia, down the red tiled hallway, its alley
of coats, heading for the clatter of the scullery.
But a creak from upstairs stops me. An invalid
moving to adjust the day round himself,
old soak with his liver shot, uncle of fireside lies
and carefully selected truths, his wink
at one or the other (I could never tell), his gruff
admonishment: Ah, what do you know, boy.
And suddenly I’m halted by a fear of that voice
shouting as he once did for my cousin Tom,
who was called up for Korea and never returned.
That look when he saw it was me, not Tom
who came to his aid, those blotches and veins
on the back of his hand as he waved me away.
So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery.
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock
on the old plank door and hold my breath.
She’d always ignore me when she knew
I was making things up but this time she turns,
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone.
Working for My Father
Late fifties, cusp of a decade. For my father and his ilk,
there’d been a war. For me and mine, surely there was more
than this: drab offices, the loading bay an echo chamber
for the bang and slang of London?
Fridays we’d gather in Jack’s cluttered shed, a grease
and diesel-smeared mechanic’s shop, thumbed pin-ups
and Jack himself tipped back on a swivel chair,
flat cap grimy as his mind.
With a signal so subtle I seldom failed to miss we’d turn as one,
flock to The Cheshire Arms, drivers, porters, gaffers,
a roost of Friday birds separating into Public and Saloon.
Be-suited but unsuited, I knew my place.
So I never got to drink beside the man my father took such pains
to keep me from. At work I’d see them grin and joke,
a give and take I envied. Perhaps it was the war,
the war I’d missed and they’d live with forever –
my charming, mannered father, every bit the officer and gentleman;
and Len, ex-paratrooper, roughouse, whose wife would,
any minute now, burst through the door demanding
this week’s pay before he tipped it down his throat.