Last year I turned forty
but these days I find
my wisdom bested by a toddling child …
'Tickover Speed Only Past Moored Boats' - Signboard on the South Oxford Canal, Thrupp, Oxfordshire.
It's the plosive thud of a vintage Lister,
the skitter and splash of the sculler's oars;
it's the zig-zag track of the day-hire kayak,
the wind-borne meander of an angler's float.
It's the bankside chatter of the dawn dog-walkers,
the drilling of ducks' beaks on the narrowboat's beam;
it's the lighting of a Wagtail on the stub of the tiller,
the crescent moon's reflection in a riffled stream.
It's the back-stabbing beggary of bread-fed moorhens
treading water in a chorus at the open hatch -
the quicksilver shimmy and the flick of the dorsal
of the goggle-eyed Roach as they rise to the fly.
It's the lift of the hull and the squeezing of fenders,
the scrape of the skeg and the tug on the ropes -
it's the lurch in the stomach and the pull to the window
that presages the passage of a passing boat.
On the Navigators' Cut we are moved by the other:
in the on-flow of consequence, the backwash of time.
The moon stipples silver on the moored vessel's painter.
We are gentled to sleep on the wake of the Coots.
My daughter's six years-old. Last Saturday
we went to Cowey Sale to feed the birds.
We stood there with our bags of bread.
A swan approached, a full-grown cob,
ungainly, lordly, every inch as tall as her.
He stretched, and spread his wings – I felt their waft.
She never flinched, she held her ground.
She fed him titbits from the bag. I felt so proud.
We stood there on the Surrey bank
and stared along the Thames to Walton Bridge.
“What do you see?” I asked her. And she said:
“A bow, a metal rainbow with its feet touching the earth.”
I smiled; she said: “When we get home tonight
I want to stay up late and watch the Stars on Ice.”
One day, perhaps this year, we'll walk across that bridge.
We'll cross, as so many have crossed before:
its span of wood and stone and brick
remade in steel – the girders braced and tensioned,
tempered to withstand the shock of centuries to come.
I'll lean against the parapet, ask her what the future holds.
She gestures to the bridge's end. “I want to dance,”
she says. I tell her: “Sweetheart, you already do.”
She thinks I'm teasing her. I'm not.
With every step she takes she makes the world anew.
It’s the hazy, dusky drunkenness that comes after sex -
a seed-sown, harvest-home contentment
in the woodlands and hedgerows -
the trees at ease with themselves in their pollen-passed
conception achieved for another year,
their branches pregnant.
And listen - you can hear the stretch-marks ripple
through the swollen purple of the plums and wild damsons,
a come-hither calling to birds, and boys with sticks
and girls with lips grown sticky with eating.
Listen - to the pinprick primp and pimple
of the thousand tiny eyelets of the blackberries.
The blushes redden on the apples’ cheeks.
The gloss grows more lustrous on the beads
of sloe and haw and hip.
In their spiky shells the chestnuts harden to mahogany.
And the trees themselves grow languorous, like-to-like,
link arms across their lovers’ lanes,
caress a fading consciousness.
How was it for you? the oak trees ask.
The ashes nuzzle at each others’ necks.
The birch are still a-tremble.
And at their feet the warm earth opens
to receive another generation.
I live with my sister in the summer-caves.
Reﬂected light of ocean whispers on the rocks.
We lie in each other’s arms and look up at the light.
All my life it has been like this –
I honour what is changeful,
hold my balance while the world eddies round me.
I am the still point, the calm to which the sea returns
from wave and storm.
My eyes are its blue, and cold and clear as ocean.
My thoughts break the surface like porpoise.
A boy came to us, an immortal.
We think that one day he will be a king.
He tells us that he fell from heaven
and we smile and soothe his babbling.
I put him to my breast and he sucks like a seal-pup.
He drains me and it is exquisite.
Milk spills and runs between my breasts,
it crusts on my belly, cracks as I stretch.
He coils his ﬁngers in my hair and tugs.
The veins beat at his temples,
blue beneath his cap of hair.
His rage is monstrous, undeniable.
He beats into our stillness and slowly
his anger ceases. He is calm.
I am warded by dead men,
guided by ghosts;
their touch on my arm is deft,
I fear for the skill in my hands.
I take his tools down from the rack
as the scroll coils,
the steel draws down.
The drift sinks plumb-centre
through the body of the bar.
These things are gifted:
I step into their spell.
In the upswing of the hammer
the blow’s intuition.
In the pressure of my knuckles on the tongs
a nicety of angles judged.
As though their palms had printed on the place
that’s mine to touch.
And at its heart the ﬁre,
the cave of coals
through which the bellows’ pulsing soughs.
Behind the suck-and-push of leather
I hear the sibilance of heat
that spreads along the bar.
The looseness that precedes the burning,
the lucent dangerousness of steel,
the hiss of their companionship.
As a child I watched
the peel and splinter of slate
as you picked in the cliff face
Something beautiful about the coils
that you dislodged, their corrugations
clenched across millennia,
stranded in a sea-bed turned to rock
that reared above the crust we stood on.
Something fantastical, even then,
about the sense you made of time,
the gaps it spanned
and their inversion
of the solid and the liquid things.
And something precious in that shore
whose gold grain ran a thread
between the old sea and the new,
the stone sea and the wind-ruffed
restless charge of water-onto-land.
You lent me your hammer to play with:
its weight in my hand, the swing of it
too large; its bounce and skew discarded,
abandoned on a rock.
Back at the car your anger rushed like water,
gathered the horizon to itself and took me,
rolled me over, spun the world –
left me battered, breathless, still as stone.
And I remember how you ran,
with no thought but the hammer,
back across the beach to beat the tide,
your footsteps ﬂailing in the sand.
We sit in corridors of light and take our conspicuous ease:
the evening papers open on our laps, the silk constriction
of our neck-ties slipped, waistcoats unbuttoned.
And if we speak at all we speak in murmurs, voices
barely raised above the chatter from the tracks, the kiss
of steel on steel contained by rubber, spring, hydraulic fluid.
And what impinges of the night beyond the glass
comes in the tremoring of ice, the miniscule vibration
of a beaker on the wipe-clean table-top,
the subtle change in locomotive pitch as we pass a bridge
or clear a cutting. And once or twice, from out of nowhere,
the passage of another train: the pressure-wave we’ve banked
before us torn apart, its fragmentation shuddering the gap
between opposing carriages. The buffet bows
the panes of plexiglass. The howling builds and builds,
relents at last. We risk a glance at one another,
smile, sit back, remark upon the glories of a double-track.