Just round a corner of the afternoon,
Your novel there beside you on the bed,
Your spectacles to mark your place, the sea
Just so before the tide falls back,
Your face will still be stern with sleep
As though the sea itself must satisfy
A final test before the long detention ends
And you can let the backwash take you out.
The tall green waves have waited in the bay
Since first you saw the water as a child,
Your hands inside your father’s hand, your dark eyes
Promising you heartbreak even then.
Get on with it, I hear you say. We’ve got no choice.
We left the nursing home your tired chair.
They stole the sweets and flowers anyway
And bagged your clothes like rubbish in the hall.
Here in the flat your boxed-up books and ornaments
Forget themselves, as you did at the end.
The post still comes. The state that failed to keep the faith
Pursues you for its money back. There’s nothing worse,
You used to say, than scratting after coppers.
Tell that to the clerks who’d rob your grave,
Who have no reason to remember how
You taught the children of the poor for forty years
Because it was the decent thing to do.
It seems there’s no such thing as history.
We must have dreamed the world you’ve vanished from.
This elegy’s a metaphysical excuse,
A sick-note meant to keep you back
A little longer, though you have no need to hear
What I must say, because your life was yours,
Mysterious and prized, a yard, a universe away.
But let me to it honour and repay your gift of words.
I think of how you stared into the bonfire
As we stood feeding it with leaves
In the November fog of 1959,
You in your old green coat, me watching you
As you gazed in upon
Another life, a riverside address
And several rooms to call your own,
Where you could read and think, and watch
The barges slip their moorings on the tide,
Or sketch the willows on the further shore,
Then in the evening stroll through Hammersmith
To dances at the Palais. Life enough,
You might have said. An elegant sufficiency.
There was a book you always meant to write.
You turned aside and lit a cigarette.
The dark was in the orchard now, scarf-soaking fog
Among the fallen fruit. The house was far away,
One window lit, and soon we must go back
For the interrogation to begin,
The violence and sorrow of the facts
As my mad father sometimes dreamed they were
And made the little room no place at all
Until the fit was past and terrible remorse
Took hold, and this was all the life we had.
To make the best of things Not to give up.
To be the counsellor of others when
Their husbands died or beat them up. To go on.
I see you reading, unimpressed, relentless,
Gollancz crime, green Penguins, too exhausted
For the literature you loved, but holding on.
There was a book you always meant to write,
In London, where you always meant to live.
I’d rather stand, but thank you all the same, she said,
A woman on the bus to Hammersmith, to whom
I tried to give me seat, a woman of your age,
Your war, your work. We shared the view
Of willowed levels, water and the northern shore
You would have made your landing-place.
We haven’t come this far to give up now.
Photograph © fotdmike, Cotton End village, Bedfordshire SG101562, 2008