for Brenda Williams
The dawn cracked with ice, with fire grumbling in the grate,
With ire in the homes we had left, but still somehow
We made a nook in the crooked corner of Hall Ings,
A Wordsworthian dream with sheep nibbling by every crumbling
Dry-stone wall, smoke inching from the chimney pot beside the
Turning lane, the packhorse road with every stone intact that bound
The corner tight then up and off to Thurstonland, past the weathered
Walls of the abandoned quarry, beyond Ings Farm where Rover ran
His furious challenge to our call.
We had little, so little it might have been nothing at all
The few hundred books we’d brought and furniture bought
At auction in the town, left-overs knocked down to the few pounds
We had between us, dumped outside the red front door by the
Carrier’s cart; stared at by neighbours constantly grimacing
Though the grimy nets of the weavers’ cottage windows, baffled
As to who we were and how and why we’d come there.
I never gave it a thought (perhaps I should have) but with
The sense of ‘poet’ in my soul, a book to read and one
To write, night walks in the valley’s hyaline air through
Brambled woods and on down tracks we trekked along
Until the sharp sneck of dawn drew us back to the
One-up one-down cottage on the lumbering hill.
Was it folly, chance or madness, another’s or our own,
Drove us from Leeds, our native home, past shadows
Darker than death itself upon the bedroom wall
At Rawdon in the bungalow by the cross-roads where we met?
Three decades on and yet I cannot say for sure the destiny
That made us meet was dark or light, some sound or sight
‘Beyond our mortal vision’, some immaterial infinity,
A double helix on the heels of both that made my south
Your north and jerked the compass till we knew
Not day from night nor wrong from right.
Only a week ago you took me to the house you came from
Thirty years before. Together we stood as strangers in a room
Filled with plastic saccharine furniture, vinyl gloss, cabinets
Of china dogs and photographs of a departed wife and child.
All that remained of your family was a hidden coat of red paint
Beneath the kitchen windowsill and on a faded page the number for
Your long-gone neighbour, Lilly Clarke, ninety if she lives at all,
The memory of a lilac tree, the Anderson shelter hidden by the fence,
And the incomer’s invitation to call again and then and then…
We were wrong from the beginning, you always said, wrong
To be together, wrong to go away or perhaps, as Hobsbaum said,
‘It was the place’s fault. If we’d made it to Haworth as we
Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears,
The wind sighing its threnody, crying its cradle-song, whispering
Promises of its care to come, its breath caressing the very stones
We sat on, lost beyond the ken of any guide, beyond the signatures
Of time and place, beyond, beyond…
There is no clock can measure what we both passed through,
The darker griefs that soon began to haunt your fragile sleep,
The echoes of nightmare flights through empty streets that soon
Began to creep behind the wainscot of those tiny rooms, the rat
That took them up and ran to hide and haunt us, encountered
At the cellar-head or heard beneath the boards. The sad rat-catcher’s
Nod and shaking head, as if he knew more than the pair of us
What lay ahead. Like Charlotte’s your hair lay in dark ringlets
On the pillow while I lay stunned and terrified and lost.
From then till now, two children grew, two fathers died;
One mad, one sad, but both alone. Together or apart our lives
Have changed beyond repair, the text altered and the cover bare
But still the same story more or less, echoing down hospital corridors,
Left in faded waiting rooms and lost like our children.
Cyril Williams, gravedigger at Killingbeck, buried among
The graves his own hands dug, lay beside your mother,
‘In death as in life together,’ – what parody lies hidden
Beneath the marble chips of the unmarked grave?
Where is the cross of weathered wood and stapled names?
The thirty roses that you left had withered on the stem,
The weeds had spread and spread and you yourself
Were paler than the dead.
There may be little time or time enough for ills
We have to bear for others with our own. Madness
Seems our calling, yours and mine, speaking a tongue
Where words are symbols, signs and symptoms, pointers
To a buried past, clues to an untold murder.
Those nightmares came to haunt us and teach us and take us
To that room in Stainmore Place, your mother’s ghost
At Banquo’s feast, the guest that never could
Be laid to rest.
One stifling July day thirty years on we returned to Honley
Where the hamlet snagged on the hillside, fattened now and hollow
And grown grey with money and success: one cottage joined on
To the next, the common land fenced off, the nearby chapel
Turned to a desirable residence, the tombstones garden ornaments,
The heart of Hall Ings Mill crumpled under mechanical hammers
And reeled before our eyes, dust rising to powder the wings
Of passing butterflies. We watched the white-glazed inner walls
Sink in shame to shattered heaps of stone and shards of nothingness.
I never thought it would be the experience it was-
How could anything be more banal than a visit to Oakes?
Twenty two Georgian semis from the sixties, brass coach-lamps
By glass front doors, irreproachable gardens,
The estate lodge’s great oak doors opening to vistas
Of street on street, the fields and cows gone.
We peered through the polished windows at the hearth
We’d sat around, our hearts numb, all hope gone; but then
A quiet came we had not felt for years, a lens of silence
Enclosed us, a single leaf fell at my feet.
The rat we tried to frighten, trap or poison, saw us off instead;
It seemed as if it grew beneath our very skins and circled
With our blood and hammered at our heads and leered from specks
Of fluff beneath the bed. The wainscot was the worst, it seemed
No whitewashed wall was free from cavities that wound behind
And joined another maze of runs that opened to the boards of yet
Another floor, until the tiny house had grown to one great rat-run
Vaster than the universe, where that single rodent gnawed and slithered
To unsettle finally our fragile peace.
I did not want to go. You did. I could not stay alone. It was
The whispers said and never ceased, ‘the beginning of the end’.
Now, thirty odd years on, I do not know at all, no certainty is certain,
No narrative, however neat, is sure. I know how listlessly we tried
Again in Leeds, a tiny flat with the white telephone that never rang
Next to the Christian Science Church my sad grandmother trekked to with
Her cancer-ridden spine. It was doomed from the start. The previous
Tenants had ended in divorce. If the certain salesman and his gleaming
Bride had failed to make it, how could we? Our moves from Huddersfield
And back became more frantic and our peace more fragile.
You always felt lonely in the countryside, while I longed in Leeds
For open vistas cloud-masses over the blue chain of hills, the silence
Of the lanes, the sheep bells and the endless walks. Was I in flight..?
You had to ask but then as now I had no answer; but it’s the way I was,
Hating the clutter of the city, man en masse. I thought I needed a mate
For a Platonic cave, a companion for the Martello tower in Dublin Bay,
Whatever it was I never wanted you to go but go you did to stay.
The one became the two again, you shed your ring, we had our son to share.
I read instead of writing, psycho-analysis became a faith of sorts,
A pastime then a passion I kept on with even when my muse returned
Demanding me in dreams. Our children grew, then you wrote, too, by candle
In the dark or by the breath of the midnight sea on Brighton beach.
You made the rat return so I could face it, retracing childhood’s
Nightmare footsteps while you recalled the terror of countless
Nights and days until I understood the meaning of our parted ways.
If only we could go back to the cottage on the hill at Honley
Where the road sweeps gently under the bridge where trains never ran
Our voices still echoing round the cavernous walls the smooth moss clings to
And we are beyond the reach of the driving rain.
There is always the odd cottage no one can be bothered with where the lorries roar
But when you look behind a random stream gurgles by an overgrown track
With a gully of pebbles and an overhanging rock,
The door still hangs on that rusty latch; your thumb might still
Make it yield, not in the sturm und drang of adolescence but in
The quieter intimacies of shared grief.
The hills have not moved nor the clouds altered the stance of their lazy azure
Nor has the watery Pennine sun gone in before the swallows gather.
Perhaps I have lost that jouissance-and who would not given the tornadoes,
Undivined and undeserved that seized our lives in their burning fury,
Leaving us awake in a world of dark horizons and troubled days,
Our memory a cave of broken shards.
One death came when a brother and a mother gathered so that a father
Might die opportunely and without succour in a hill-top hospital,
Lonely as a scarecrow and inaccessible on the moorland midnight,
Beyond the reach of all but death standing at the bed-head.
Similarly your own father blundering ‘into the Selby Road, high on morphine’
Could but end in the same way.
These griefs were only too normal, as was my mother’s death you wrote of
With such sad eloquence as you shared my vigil: nothing could be added
To your lines.
And of it all and of what I cannot speak?
The silence in Gethsemane
The breaking of bread
The communion when the wine I drank
Made your cradle Catholic soul
Fret at my insouciance.
Waking early I felt my sixty years
The winters of childhood slipping and sliding
In my tired imagination, the icicles on the kitchen window,
The ashes scattered over paths in patches of grey and black.
We have so much to comprehend, too much for any mortal,
The madness of youth, so fierce, so compulsive,
The cocktails of alcohol and drugs, the quarrels with knives and guns
Entered into as lightly as love was once with us.
Our generation awaits the taste of death
With none of the anticipated solace,
No children’s children visiting in spite of the spare room
Stacked with toys, with shelves of dusty books, Baum’s ‘Magical Land of Oz’
Its spine laid bare, Mombi the witch, Dorothy and Toto
Gathered forlornly round the saw-horse, the scarlet and crimson
Of their Edwardian rig slightly ridiculous, the Gothic typeface
Evoking sepia prints of my father at five in a pinafore or seven
In a sailor-suit feeding the Sunday birds, my grandmother
Framed in a trellis of mignonette, the aroma fragrant still,
The violet stock lingering and re-kindling our first garden
The autumn we moved in, the rampant blossoms cager in the soil
Of my father’s first sowing.
For us there was no garden, the cottage at Hall lngs
Had only a paved yard, with tufts of grass and lichen
The whole country round an abundance of hedges and ditches
Where dog-roses blossomed, meadows of cow-parsley, stiles to field paths,
The weathered sign ‘To Thurstonland’ we followed with hand-in-hand innocence,
Returning at sunset, our hands full of violets.
The garden at Oakes stayed barren, thc bare soil cumbered with builder’s waste,
Resisting our listless endeavours. The jobbing gardener stirred Paraquat,
Muttering under his breath as he sheltered in the garage from the sudden rain.
He left the seeding to another day, left it too late to sow, grumbled
As he turfed it the day after our move with Brenda alone,
Scrubbing the boards. She saw him scowl as he punched the limp turf
With his calloused hands, demanding payment, angry at her innocence.
Brudenell Road had no garden to speak of,
A couple of feet at the front with a broken wall
And the back bare and hard from children’s play,
The privet was matted with shards of glass, worn tennis balls and broken toys,
So tattered I cut it back to the wall, I sat on the top step and read,
Watching the children play in the sand I’d trundled in barrow loads
From the builder’s yard, a make-do sandpit which drew the whole street,
West Indian, English and Asian built temples together. Our sandalled
Bearded neighbour was the first to complain, his teacher wife beside him,
The next-door French widow supporting, “So numerous the children, n’est ce pas?”
Meaning “Don’t encourage the Pakis, there are too many already.”
Like thunder the row erupted, a streetful of shouting, my voice the loudest,
The yesses had it, the children remained, our last real garden.
In memory of Emily Bronte
Besieged, beaten and bruised
I had proved my oracle lied
There was no peace in poetry and flight.
Yet as I sat and watched the night
Gather in the shallows of heather
I remembered the steep stone streets,
The ginnels of my childhood,
The walls of Roman York.
On this last June day, hidden by a haze of walls,
I found a cottage so overgrown I had to part a mass of green
To touch the door, the window-panes opaque with dirt, sills choked with
A rusted letter-box, cracked lintel, lichened roof-slates caving in,
A ‘Sold’ board hammered firmly into place.
There was no solace in the parsonage, no solace there at all,
The staff found it odd, my wanting to park my heavy bag and trudge
From room to room. The couch Emily died on, so shabby and so faded,
Patrick’s hat and sticks like stage props, Mrs. Gaskell’s escritoire
So thoroughly bourgeois, Charlotte’s crinoline evoking ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’.
I sat outside the tourist shop, watching the families pass,
Still reeling from the news of our son’s loss,
His life-in-death and death-in-life.
The crowds gone, the shops closed
I browsed over rock and lichen,
O sleeper in the earth
Would that you might listen.
Would that you waken and tell me
Why young girls’ beauty no longer moves me?
Their innocent glances as they leap-frog or hand-stand
With such jouissance takes hold of me no more.
I watched a troupe of Keighley girls
Pass through a turnstile on their way
To clubs in Leeds last night.
One wore a veil tacked round with sequins
Like scruples on the hem: there is no beauty like that girl’s
Who’s naked feet touched heaven in their swirls.
Note: I use the word ‘scruples’ in its old sense i. e. a weight of 20 grains.