For Brenda Williams
La lune diminue; divin septembre.
Divine September the moon wanes.
Pierre Jean Jouve
Themes for poems and the detritus of dreams coalesce:
This is one September I shall not forget.
The grammar-school caretaker always had the boards re-blacked
And the floors waxed, but I never shone.
The stripes of the red and black blazer
Were prison-grey. You could never see things that way:
Your home had broken windows to the street.
You had the mortification of lice in your hair
While I had the choice of Brylcreem or orange pomade.
Four children, an alcoholic father and
An Irish immigrant mother. Failure’s metaphor.
I did not make it like Alan Bennett,
Who still sends funny postcards
About our Leeds childhood.
Of your’s, you could never speak
And found my nostalgia
Forgetting your glasses for the eleven plus,
No money for the uniform for the pass at thirteen.
It wasn’t – as I imagined – shame that kept you from telling
But fear of the consequences for your mother
Had you sobbed the night’s terrors
Of your father’s drunken homecomings,
Your mother sat with the door open
In all weathers while you, the oldest,
Waited with her, perhaps
Something might have been done.
He never missed a day’s work digging graves,
Boasting he could do a six-footer
Single-handed in two hours flat.
That hackneyed phrase
‘He drank all his wages’
Doesn’t convey his nightly rages
The flow of obscenities about menstruation
While the three younger ones were in bed
And you waited with your mother
To walk the streets of Seacroft.
“Your father murdered your mother”
As Auntie Margaret said,
Should a witness
Your mother’s growing cancer went diagnosed, but unremarked
Until the final days
She was too busy auxiliary nursing
Or working in the Lakeside Cafй.
It was her wages that put bread and jam
And baked beans into your stomachs.
Her final hospitalisation
Was the arena for your father’s last rage
Her fare interfering with the night’s drinking;
He fought in the Burma Campaign but won no medals.
Some kind of psychiatric discharge – ‘paranoia’
Lurked in his papers. The madness went undiagnosed
Until his sixtieth birthday. You never let me meet him
Even after our divorce.
In the end you took me on a visit with the children.
A neat flat with photographs of grandchildren,
Stacks of wood for the stove, washing hung precisely
In the kitchen, a Sunday suit in the wardrobe.
An unwrinkling of smiles, the hard handshake
Of work-roughened hands.
One night he smashed up the tidy flat.
The TV screen was powder
The clock ticked on the neat lawn
‘Murder in Seacroft Hospital’
Emblazoned on the kitchen wall.
I went with you and your sister in her car to Roundhay Wing.
Your sister had to leave for work or sleep
You had to back to meet the children from school.
For Ward 42 it wasn’t an especially difficult admission.
My first lesson: I shut one set of firedoors while the charge nurse
Bolted the other but after five minutes his revolt
Was over and he signed the paper.
The nurse on nights had a sociology degree
And an interest in borderline schizophrenia.
After lightsout we chatted about Kohut and Kernberg
And Melanie Klein. Your father was occasionally truculent,
Barricading himself in on one home leave. Nothing out of the way
For a case of that kind. The old ladies on the estate sighed,
Single men were very scarce. Always a gentleman, tipping
His cap to the ladies.
There seems to be objections in the family to poetry
Or at least to the kind that actually speaks
And fails to lie down quietly on command.
Yours seems to have set mine alight-
I must get something right.