|The launch of Party at Kings Lynn Poetry Festival. Left Judith Kazantzis and right the late Peter Porter.|
The room's filling up with people I've known.
They leave wine circles on the mantelpiece,
open windows, change tapes in the cassette,
flick through books and photo albums.
Someone's taken yesterday's paper from the bin
and is looking for a story. They tell each other
about themselves, kiss at the bottom of the stairs,
turn down lights and move into the garden with cushions
and rugs. They eat bite-sized tarts and tread on toys,
twist hair and press pendants into thumbs, scratch and cough.
Some have come back from the dead. They cling to drainpipes
and stand on shoulders, stretch for upstairs windows.
The hall is packed and cars fill the road, spill up side streets -
they've reached the racecourse. Floorboards give way
collapse into the cellar. The music's so loud it interrupts
my heartbeat. My clothes are handed out to those who are cold.
All the paper in the house is torn up to write numbers on.
They take over the cemetery. A hotel pianist
and bass-player I fancied set up a stage with fallen
headstones. Friends with children organise a crèche.
A succession of plumbers who never understood my boiler
spot-weld standpipes. The detectives and para from Aldershot
who once lived upstairs, arrange a military display.
Part-time djs - van driver, computer salesman
and personal trainer from the gym - spin three decades,
45s to CDs. All the men I've ever been out with
are put in discussion groups by women friends.
Women from the ferries, shops, kennels, bars, temp agencies
and language school arrange shift work at minimal pay
for the handful of chief executives who've shown up. Relatives
have comfortable chairs away from the party
and all those cash-only landlords offer free rooms overnight.
Photographers take polaroids of everyone.
A man from the allotments hands out runner bean poles
and the electrician's run a cable to a photocopier.
Every face is enlarged to the size of a flag
as in demonstrations for the missing - husbands, wives,
toddlers, teenagers, street children, grandfathers,
aunts, cousins, neighbours, workmates, friends.
|Ruth Padel included a poem from Party|
in her Sunday poem series in 2001. It appeared
on 28 January, my birthday.
If we'd taped that rainy night in the car
when we sat drinking with the windows down,
staring at the lights of two cottages
on the island opposite, it would play back
nothing but breathing, the door opening
and closing as you checked the children
in the tent, a cork pulled from a bottle,
the Atlantic below, reclaiming another inch
of the peninsula, wind rustling a plastic
rubbish bag, damp matches scraped uselessly
on the dashboard and you tapping a rhythm
on your glass with a pencil - like rigging
against masts, beached above the tideline,
bared of sails and wet with spray.
(Every month, the moon returns to the same place
in the sky as the day a child is born.)
Over the hoover, my mother sings 'Moon River',
or what she knows of it, "wider than a mile",
da daa dada da daaa, humming the rest
as she dresses naked dolls. The song's from
Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mercer and Mancini's
Oscar win of 1961. Just after midday, nearly full,
it's faded and blurred as a washed-out print.
But at night, my mother brings binoculars,
names craters and seas, lets me scan the surface.
It's as if I'm there, just looking over a hill.
I want to fill its holes with milk, hate
anyone giving it a face. The moon in the day
is a tunnel into these nights. The two of us
so close, the sky enormous, this other place.
The Guardia Civil is out of the picture.
Against a tinted backdrop with relief
the heads of two flamenco dancers just touch.
An airbubble above them is all that allows
the water to move, glitter to float and fall.
They smile as if they are not gasping for it.
It came from a souvenir shop at the port
in Algeciras, before the 10 a.m. ferry to Tangiers.
Franco's armed police everywhere, the open-topped
Sunbeam Talbot lures children at every junction.
In my front room now, the three-balled pendulum
twists under the glass dome of that clock
from my aunt's flat. Once I believed it would never
stop, that it would keep perfect time
as if the dome protected it from lost minutes,
extra half hours - a metronome behind
her new high-heels hurrying along the quay.
Plums and apples are gone now. Houses
flatten the old fruit farm, long and ranch-like,
Dutch Reform. At night, security lights flash
circles on lawns, outdoor stages for cats
breaking the beam. Dogs leap at fences,
rattling mesh the way their owners might shake
a pedigree. Gardeners move in slow motion,
avoiding sudden moves, as if they're pushing thighs
against water. Released from the snarls
the road home feels like a dance floor.
This is exile for city whites; sudden power cuts,
unaccustomed poisonous snakes, serum
in the fridge, farmers as comfortable with guns
as slitting the throat of a screaming pig.
They have slipped through the necklace of mines
around Johannesburg: uranium, gold, sulphur, clay,
silver, dolomite, coal, diamonds; swapping
once comfortable suburbs for poultry sheds.
The nearest town is sixties Afrikaaner style,
austere as a frontier post, without statues or gardens.
There's nowhere to hang around, just car parks
and warehouse shops, one bank, one chemist.
It's Christmas Eve and we're buying meat - steak, sausages,
chops - sold in brai packs, clear plastic bags.
They could be windows into a body.
There's no shop assistants
in funny hats just the heat, not enough shade,
queues at the butcher's and guards at the off-licence
stacked floor to ceiling with beer.
At the bank they ask where you got your pounds,
not believing your passport; its stamps from Denmark,
England, Ghana, Switzerland like pressed flowers
in an inherited book. It takes more than half an hour
to change money. You'd think they were giving it away,
each form handwritten, slow as a child,
large, round numbers pressed too hard into the paper.
She can't work out the passport number, I am itching
to argue, you restrain me, knowing better.
We lie on the bed watching a game show -
applause and crackling interference -
sleep end to end like the wax family
in Johannesburg's Museum of Africa
past the reconstructed bushman,
recorded resistance speeches. We raid
our children's stockings for the neighbour's.
Your mother peels vegetables
from the 'Deliverance' market;
feathery carrots, cabbages - leaves chewed into lace.
Driving here, the clucks from the chicken
trussed in the back are all that interrupts
our silence. We must come before dark,
your mother commands. People will be drinking.
We're in time for the coalman. You hoist our son
into his horse-drawn cart, pay for the bags
the Aga will burn all day tomorrow, warming
the fermenting African beer, stewing meat, boiling rice
and pap. Electricity cables droop like washing lines
above us, criss-crossing into an unfinished net
above this city of ochre and tin.
In the morning the smoke rises vertically
as if it, too, is determined to escape. Your brothers
arrive, prompting the first muffled row
about who was buying drink. Children come early
to share the soap we brought your mother
then splash around the standpipe with our son.
Plates are filled, washed, filled again
and everyone dances. I cannot.
She insists I must be out again before dark.
The man walking alone on the road
wrapped in a blanket, knows a lift will come.
A hundred miles between petrol stations
with his country beyond a range of mountains
to his east, he feels his muscles relax
as the gradient straightens out
after the long haul up from the wine region
with its vineyards, water tanks and grass
cooled by mist. Now there will be nothing
but lay-bys with trees and no taps. He carries
water, used to this trek and knows someone
will stop. There's no need to put out a thumb
on a road like this, where crossroads are rare
as water, speed is constant as the scrub.
It won't be holiday-makers; they flap past,
windows dark as popstars', languid hands
dipped in air as if it was a private pool.
It won't be lorries; pummelling the road
like jack-hammers. It may be a mini-bus
full of Sowetans with a spare seat, leaving
for Johannesburg at dawn, after trading
factory bought china, hand-painted pots,
for unwanted clothes. The man walking alone
is tiny at first. We see him for miles, bobbing
in and out of the mirage like a seal we saw
swimming in the bay near Cape Town.
Its tail, ragged as seaweed, kept pace
as you jogged from the fish wholesalers
on the jetty to the beach carpark. Then he's in
the mirror, his face gone as if it was flashed on tv.
There'll be another, like the nought
on the mileometer which keeps coming round.
We watch the foxes over the stream
in rough grass below the woods.
My mother calls from the sink
when they bring the cubs out.
At night we listen to the vixen scream.
So when the old man with Jack Russells lays traps
we force his metal jaws shut,
dig for a day with seaside spades
a pit deep enough to break his leg, push
sharpened stakes into sand, camouflaged
with dead leaves, a lattice-work of twigs.
Waiting for something to happen
When the peonies come out, hailstones
batter the fullest heads into mounds of petals
as if a group of women had stepped out
of identical dresses and walked away.
We lift bikes over stiles and pedal the river
bank for views into back gardens,
the dry smell of cow parsley and grasses
as familiar as the sun on skin,
to the rope swing where the river's shallow.
Beyond the moss under beech trees,
studded with last year's husks,
roads funnel heat between banked hedges
and perimeters of rhododendrons,
while we count magpies,
blow shrieks from couch grass and unpeel
poppy buds, the petals like unironed
silk, wrapped methodically
as parachutes, trying not to tear them.
At Thursley Moat I listen for curlews
with Rod. We walk over the bog
on a wooden path. Beside an oily ditch,
a sundew; just denting the membrane
of water, a raft spider waiting
for skaters. We sit in the sun. This is as quiet
as Surrey gets. Could I map it?
Above, a helicopter, to the right,
a road. A cough, shoe scraping board,
lawn-mower, a dog barking,
a horse; all draw radials of sound.
I'm hiding again in bracken,
holding my breath, watching friends
tread past unaware. It's 24 years
since I heard no cars, no aircraft.
At weekends, or when evenings last
my mother puts us in the old grey Rover
with the dog and drives to Hankley.
In the pond, by the car park, fishermen
hunch under umbrellas big as tents,
nets slouched in the shallows, and summon
pike strong enough to take a hand off.
The water never moves. This is the place
in the woods we walk away from.
The pond's too much like home.
On the common we struggle through sand
churned up by trucks. She warns us
to stay out of the heather, where lost flares
and cartridges hide, unexploded. We walk,
and talk more easily than in the house.
The sky opens us up and in summer
it's as if fire cracks in every stem of heather,
burns in the sun on our necks
the prickly heat reddening my mother's hands,
in clumps of beaters, stacked like paddles
waiting for canoes, and a river to carry them.
Then it's gone. Leaving patches of charcoal,
maps of new territories scored into purple;
landmarks which will last a year at most.
There were Daleks here. We know
there are targets where soldiers lie low
on their stomachs and wait, like the pike.
(for Rob Fairbanks)
Andrew has a map out. He's reading
off names: Nine Acre, Great Piece,
Thorn Bears, Bar Field, Middle Horse
Hatch, Stony Windsor. He can track
his family over this acreage
and beyond, precisely as the pedigree
of a bull. Fields of pasture are lumpy
with burrows, neatly sown crops
eaten ragged. Rabbits grey as molehills
flatten themselves into grass, hunted
by a man from Special Branch, his rifle
silenced to a thud. Above him, a cow's digging
a hole into red earth with her hooves.
Another's supervising a dozen calves
under trees, while their mothers eat.
Rooks raid pig feed. They know Andrew's car.
By the time he stops at the gate, the sky's full
- a gust of charred paper, cackling.
I watch from the woods as neighbours dismantle
walls, share timbers, stones, cows, sheep, goats.
In 16 years the village vanishes. You can trace
a star - pace each path, seven of them,
climb to the ridge, stop to stroke a dead elm,
stoop through willows along the dry stream,
or jump stepping stones, stumble through ruts
in the track south, smell elderflower in a hedge.
The last one brings you in from cowfields, directly west
- to crouch on grass where the centre was.
Cattle, a smudged mix of Belgian Blue and Friesan,
shuffle towards us on straw, shove heads through rails,
curious. They're eating oranges, barley brewers
have finished with, potato starch from Walkers crisps
- like bored teenagers whose only entertainment's
a bus shelter, Saturdays between McDonald's and Burger King.
Lucas farms alone, predicts it won't be long
before fields are monitored by satellite,
their 80 foot tramlines, tracked from space
and the places where charlock, cleavers, wild oats,
couch grass take hold on weakened soil,
reduce the yield, will be clear as the Great Wall.
(for Malcolm Tadd)
A rock thuds in the dust. Silent children listen
as its echo floods a wormery of cellars
stretched to meet the demand for hour-glasses.
It enters the shells of their ears, sweeps
over Grace's name carved in a wall
and the date next to it, 1644.
It passes a mock Tyrannosaurus Rex roaring
at pickaxe marks, expands at a rifle range,
ammunition store, bomb shelter, hospital.
It shakes 200 plates from a nuclear shelter,
finds its way upwards, to emerge
into a railway tunnel, sudden warmth, drizzle.
Outside, the echo approaches a pensioner
folding £10 into her purse, a bricklayer
stretching his arms for relief.
There's no going back. It searches out
anyone who'll hear - occupying the space
left by a phone that rings, then stops.
|Women with bleach containers used for collecting water |
in Mashau, Venda, South Africa
"Are we still in England?" my four year old asks.
I thought this was the heart of it: four-wheel drives
and radio masts, neighbourhood watch, gates
from back gardens into woods, a stray azalea
among bilberries. People here need shade, complain
if trees are felled. They believe they are poor,
with boats beached in drives. I see men on donkeys
emerge from the M25. Women walk home
along the A287, nine Sainsbury's bags on their heads.
From the ridge you can see two ponds,
twins but only in name. The little one's
hidden, occupied by moorhens;
in summer, boys who strip off
and wade across for a dare. My father walks
clockwise, close to the water, then back
onto sandy footpaths, hard and grey.
Eyes upwards, he watches a flock
circling the pond. Another airshow.
He's with them; sharing the instinct of flight
learned from decades building planes
but never understanding the need to leave.
I drive under flight paths. They hum to me,
accompanied by twin motorways, the way
my seven year old fills his head with music
building Lego worlds. At first it's like the sea,
never loud enough to drown the bell sounds
of birds, a stone dropping. It nags of routes
to places I've forgotten or never found.