I didn’t see the knife in the envelope
my father was waving through the window.
Smiling and cheering they met me at the door,
parents, sister, Juma, and Nina our black
Alsatian joining in with barks and whines.
The envelope had flown from London across
the Alps, Sahara, Ethiopia, Kilimanjaro,
then in a sack five hundred miles up country
to where we lived, where we lived together,
from where its paper blade would cut me out,
the incision at first unnoticed,
sharp and quick.
On the Dakota flying to the coast
the pilot took me into his cabin.
I looked at the controls, the dials,
herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle
across yellow plains, studded with thorn.
There was something else going on
that seemed to have my attention.
That night, staying with friends,
I came out of my room to find them watching.
The dim blue light on the landing turned cold,
dropped down and poured into my chest.
In England my grandfather met me,
a Naval Officer in a dark-blue suit.
The taxi stopped in a street
that glistened in the drizzle
and dim light of street lamps,
outside a tall portico with unlit windows.
I was sick on the floor of the cab.
Hunched headmaster Scragg said,
the ghost of Saint Cuthman walks
but never on the first night of term
to us, standing in our dormitory.
Above my bed was a beam
beneath which we were told
a detached head sometimes
hung in the dark
and that if you climbed up
you’d break a bone.
Preston did and bust his leg
next day playing rugby,
the same match Fielding
got hit under the chin,
bit his tongue half through,
stood there with this flap
hanging out of his gob,
blood streaming down his front.
We laughed. The teacher said,
stuff your hankie
in your mouth, find Matron.
Tall, grey, impatient with our
coughs, ear ache, home sickness.
A bath and change of clothes each week,
cold water wash at dawn,
was her prescription.
After she developed cancer
I saw her thin face at a window.
It was she who told us about the head.
Gardener said, sleeping in an attic
he woke to find a ghost
by his bed, a woman killed
when a tree fell through the roof.
I dreamt of looking up a staircase
to a landing with a shut door,
from where a banister rose
to higher floors in the dark.
Blows, shoving down hillsides,
enforced mutual masturbation,
coating hands with dog shit,
typewriter, kidney punch, dead leg.
Noise after lights-out:
a beating with shoes,
broom handles, hockey sticks,
bent over laundry baskets
where Matron stacked our sticky linen.
If Hutchinson took offence
the others would stick with him.
Trapped in sheets and blankets,
we attack Marston silently,
twisting his wrists and arms,
fist in the ribs and solar plexus,
a foot in the balls to make him roll up.
He doesn’t cry out. Hutchinson directs.
Each Sunday to St Peter’s,
Nunc Dimittis, Magnificat,
our breath white in the cold nave.
Awake my soul and with the sun
All our weakness thou dost know
Forgive our foolish ways
Oh God our help in ages past
For there’s another country I heard of long ago
and at the end for a few seconds –
The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you,
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you
and give you peace.
I wrote home on thin blue paper
folded into a small rectangle,
sealed along its edges.
I spent my pocket money on broken biscuits ..
I got 6/10 in the History test ..
It is very cold here ..
Fry’s sledge hit a gate you could see the bone ..
This Easter am I going to Granny or Aunt Muriel? ..
Tomorrow is the school cross-country run ..
Sorry you found my last letter hard to read ..
How are Juma and Nina?
A teacher found my matches.
Hardy – to Mr Scragg.
I stood before the desk,
he remarked on my upbringing,
You’ll have to be caned –
three, bent over in the corner.
Scragg had angina.
With ‘Ike’ Williams always six,
to see our shoulders shudder.
Lie flat on your back, legs straight out,
both feet two inches off the ground,
keep them there.
Hang on the wall bars,
wrists jammed against a rung,
raise knees to waist,
Stand in line, arms horizontal,
level with shoulders.
Rotate arms and hands
backwards, small loops,
do not let them drop.
The five mile run across
damp fields and flooded ditches,
up steep paths, over gates and fences,
through valleys full of grey, wet trees,
narrow lanes like drains
sunk in the ground, small streams
running in the verge.
Emery, blonde hair over one eye,
indifferent to punishment,
had a Persian cousin.
Veils and gowns,
warm evenings in Shiraz.
At weekends we made off
to a cafe where the sun shone
through large windows,
the room pale and cool.
We wrote poetry.
It was Spring,
Girls looking over fences, calling our names,
grabbing our caps and running off,
serving in shops, cleaning floors.
Met them down Dog Lane,
a minute risked between prep and roll call,
or in a barn which stank of cow shit,
sometimes an iron shelter on the promenade,
waves crashing over groynes.
After holidays we came back
long hair tucked into collars,
queued for short back and sides
outside the bath cubicles where
we’d once been hung,
shackled to the top bar of the doorframe,
scaffolding clamps round our wrists,
racked by our own weight.
One day Emery was gone.
Trying to impress his relative
he crashed a Lancia in Lewes High Street
where it caught fire.
My atlas said:
‘Each year the Suez canal is used by 12,000 ships, 35% of them British.
UK average annual income £276; life expectancy males 66; females 71.
India average annual income £20; life expectancy males 27; females 27.
USA average annual income £519; life expectancy males 62; females 66’.
As ships converge on Cuba
I dream we are playing cricket,
huge brown mushroom clouds rise
against a blue sky
behind trees ringing the ground.
One Sunday Bennett’s sermon,
leaving school in ’17,
life expectancy two weeks,
lines of small black figures
vanishing across a horizon at Langemarck.
An ex-soldier, stupefied with drink,
staring open mouthed at our laughing faces
tells us to dissect cloaca, vent
of plaice, pinned before us on the desk.
Saturday evening in a classroom,
lists of war dead on one wall,
cone of silver filling the screen,
glorious defeat, Tobruk.
At year’s end in the taxi
my grandfather asked me
the formula of sulphuric acid.
I didn’t answer.
He said that at my age he could
calculate the diameter of a propeller shaft
from the weight of its screw,
was proud to have learned
in the Sailor Boys’ School
for keeping a log.
Then, looking out of the window,
he told me they’d starved,
scooped grease from tubs of cocoa.
How a boy caught stealing wore
‘THIEF’ pinned to his uniform.
That boys judged insolent would
pull down their trousers,
lift their shirt, bend forward,
head between the Bosun’s knees,
be flogged across back and buttocks.
I didn’t say anything.
I flew to Rome, Karachi, Delhi,
took off from there in the evening.
Looking out the window
a jagged strip along the horizon,
glinting white against dark blue sky.
Everest, Kanchenjunga the pilot said.
Setting sun turned
the peaks pale red,
the sky beyond them black.
In Singapore midnight air
thick, warm, full of scent,
fermenting fruit and fuel.
Next morning from a Dakota
over the South China Sea
I saw the wakes of ships
heading west towards the Pacific,
knew where they were going
and where I was.
(Years later I thought I’d got away,
that it had vanished like dreams on waking –
the flint walls, dark windows, wet stripped trees,
muddy trails over hills,
jeering big faces looking down.
Then we took my daughter to University,
leaving home for the first time.
Six hours in the rain past Stoke.
A room with a dim yellow light,
iron bed, her small trunk on the floor.
She looked at us and
suddenly it was all there –
a cloud of voices, fists, oak doors,
hammer beams, the unlit portico,
a thousand miles of silence, ghosts –
filling the room to the ceiling,
a cold vice gripping my chest,
forcing my heart down.)
Chris lives in London and has lived and travelled in widely. His poems have been
published in many magazines, anthologies and websites including Poetry Review;
Poetry Salzburg Review, Stand; Tears In The Fence; The Dark Horse; among others.
He is in LiTTLe MACHiNe (www.little-machine.com) performing their settings of well known poems. They have made an album with Roger McGough and are touring with him.
Chris’s most recent collection, ‘Sunshine at the end of the world’; was published in August 2017 by Indigo Dreams Publications.