The evening had caught cold;
Its eyes were blurred.
It had a dripping nose
And its tongue was furred.
I sat in a warm bar
After the day’s work:
November snuffled outside,
Greasing the sidewalk.
But soon I had to go
Out into the night
Where shadows prowled the alleys,
Hiding from the light.
But light shone at the corner
On the pavement where
A man had fallen over
Or been knocked down there.
His legs on the slimed concrete
Were splayed out wide;
He had been propped against a lamp-post:
His head lolled to one side.
A victim of crime or accident,
An image of fear,
He remained quite motionless
As I drew near.
Then a thin voice startled silence
From a doorway close by
Where an urchin hid from the wind
“Spare a penny for the guy!”
I gave the boy some money
And hastened on.
A voice called, ‘Thank you guv’nor!’
And the words upon
The wincing air seemed strange –
So hoarse and deep –
As if the guy had spoken
In his restless sleep.
November night, Edinburgh
The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the door, and sidles past.
I gulp down winter raw. The heady
Darkness swirls with tenements.
In a brown fuzz of cottonwool
Lamps fade up crags, die into pits.
Frost in my lungs is harsh as leaves
Scraped up on paths. - I look up, there,
A high roof sails, at the mast-head
Fluttering a grey and ragged star.
The world’s a bear shrugged in his den.
It’s snug and close in the snoring night.
And outside like chrysanthemums
The fog unfolds its bitter scent.
She was Eliza for a few weeks when she was a baby –
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.
Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.
Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.
Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.
In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.
In Oak Terrace
Old and alone, she sits at nights,
Nodding before the television.
The house is quiet now. She knits, rises to put the kettle on,
watches a cowboy’s killing, reads the local Births and Deaths, and falls asleep at ‘Growing stock-piles of war-heads’.
A world that threatens worse ills
fades. She dreams of life spent in the one house: suffers again poverty, sickness, abandonment, a child’s death, a brother’s brain
melting to madness. Seventy years of common trouble; the kettle sings.
At midnight she says her silly prayers,
And takes her teeth out, and collects her night-things.
Summer in the Village
Now, you can see where the widows live: nettles grow tall and thistles seed round old machinery.
Hayfields smooth under the scythe simmer with tussocks; the hedges begin to go, and the bracken floods in.
Where the young folk have stayed on gaudy crops of caravans and tents erupt in roadside fields;
Shell Gifts, Crab Sandwiches, To Let, the signs solicit by the gates, left open where the milk churns used to stand; and the cash trickles in.
‘For Sale’ goes up again on farms the townies bought with good intentions and a copy of The Whole Earth Guide;
Samantha, Dominic and Willow play among the geese and goats while parents in the pub complain about Welsh education and the dole.
And a new asperity creeps in.
Now, you will see the tidy management of second homes: slightly startled, old skin stretched, the cottages are made convenient.