Copyright © 2016 by Ina Anderson
His wife and children, mostly grown,
worked around the rocking of his favourite chair.
His words were few enough but always clear,
requests for fresh tea or comments on the radio news.
But here was war again, and twenty years
had barely passed. The shipyard
and the steelworks drew them in most nights,
the buzzing, droning planes, dropping bomb
after bomb, that high-pitched squealing,
shattering the houses and the shops,
leveling the railway station just down the street.
No milk to be had and scarcely any bread.
Joe Baker rocked and puffed his pipe.
The air raid sirens wailed again tonight
and Annie scurried round to gather
a few things into a bag, load
her arms with a coat and a blanket,
tie a warm scarf round her head.
“Come on, Joe, stir yourself, here’s your cap,
and put on this warm jersey.
Come on, Joe, I’ve got your coat.”
His face was still, his lips
just gently pulling on his pipe.
He didn’t look at Annie. He did not stir.
“Come on, Joe, come on, come on,
you can’t just sit there, we’ve barely time
to reach the shelter steps!”
And in the end they left him there,
rocking gently, rocking, rocking,
determined that this war would
not dictate his life, that, come what may,
this war would not bend him to its will,
that he would never again scurry like a rat
into a bomb shelter hole, no matter
how his wife and family wailed.
That the war would not fill him
with fear and frenzy, make him
crouch in a piss-reeking hole with
whimpering children, cowering neighbours
wetting themselves in fright as the bombs
The all-clear siren wailing,
families straggled up the shelter steps,
up into the cold night air
floating with heavy dust.
Looking to left and right they gasped
at the flattened houses, the street
filled with cursing and weeping,
neighbours running in all directions.
Annie’s eyes pierced the dusty dark,
scared to hope, unwilling
to believe what she might see.
Though the row was leveled to either side,
her Number 28 still stood.
A wither of smoke like a mist
reached up its chimney to the sky.
Joe Baker rocked inside.
His pipe was barely lit, a tiny coal
glowing in the dark, he sucked
on it still. Plaster dust filled his hair,
covered his jacket, his trouser thighs.
His eyes smiled at Annie
as she came in the broken door,
“It’s all right, Annie,
don’t you fret.”
The planks of the pier bounce
under the small, bare feet
of a four-year-old girl
and the laced canvas shoes
of a tall, slim, young man.
The girl is chubby in her blue
and white smocked cotton
bathing suit. The sun twinkles
on the man’s horn-rimmed
spectacles, gleams on his pink,
prematurely-bald skull. His tie
snaps in the wind, his cufflinks
sparkle in the sun. The girl
clutches tightly his large right hand,
eager, impatient, to reach the sand.
Under the man’s left arm is a box
the size of a small suitcase.
Halfway to the waves
the girl and the man stop.
Here the sand is firm,
damp, and flat. As the man
begins to pry open the box,
the girl dances in tiny circles,
sounds of glee, her eyes
never for a moment leaving
the opening box. From out
of the yellowing newspaper
wrappings, the man’s hands
draw a perfect small replica
of a kitchen stove.
The enamel is deep blue,
the chrome a perfect silver.
Quickly the girl is down
on her knees in the sand,
drawing from the tiny oven
a full set of cooking pots.
The man takes from his back pocket
the Daily Express and carefully
kneels on it in the sand.
Together they fill the tiny
baking pans, discuss menus,
turn knobs, check baking times
on his gold wristwatch.
Toward mid-afternoon a woman’s
voice hails from the pier.
The man and the girl wave
brightly. He sprints across the sand
to a stall to hire two wooden
deckchairs and arranges them
beside the stove and the neat rows
of sand cakes, pies and loaves.
The girl brews seawater tea
in the tiny pot.
The woman’s high heels
sink deep in the sand
and she laughs as she makes her way
to the chairs. She is laden
with parcels from fashionable
dress shops. The man smiles as
she recounts her successful expedition.
Carefully she plays at sipping
the tea, at munching
the cakes, praising
the taste, the texture,
When all is finished, together
they gather up
the stove, the pots, the dishes.
The man returns the deckchairs
to the stall. Hand in hand,
the girl in the middle,
they head for the promenade
and the Grand Hotel.
The cakes and loaves wait
for the evening tide.
Journey into Space
My brownie uniform is brown, of course,
and my tie is mustard yellow.
Yes, I have lots of badges, too.
But near the end of brownie meeting,
I’m already off and out the door,
crossing Abbey Road,
running pell mell down Valley Drive hill.
I fly past Colin Cunliffe’s house,
not even caring about his scary dog,
fly by Stoller’s with their big furniture van outside,
dart in between Doling’s house and ours, number 28,
and in our back door.
There’s no time to hang my coat on the hall stand
with the folded umbrellas and the Wellingtons.
I bounce straight into the dining room,
straight to the big brown radiogram,
gleaming in the corner.
The big lid is already up.
I can hear the music for the program.
Daddy’s eyes light up to greet me,
and he pats the seat close next to his.
It’s our time, it’s our program.
For the next half an hour
we’ll travel together to faraway galaxies,
we’ll meet all sorts of aliens,
we’ll reach the farthest corners of the cosmos.
I made it!
I’m home in time for
“Journey Into Space.”
Tea in a flask he’d take, milk in and sugar.
Biscuits, just plain ones,
rectangular with edges crimped.
I’d jump in the back seat, smiling.
She’d have on a floral skirt to her calves, a pale jumper.
No good for mud, her shoes were ladylike and strappy.
If the wind was brisk, she’d sit in the car.
He, though, would grasp my hand and grin.
Out the doors, off across the sheep-worn grass,
navigating bracken lanes, dodging prickly gorse.
Seemed the skylarks were singing their hearts out.
Only his eyes would point out rabbit trails and pheasant cover.
Together we’d take a breath as we breached the skyline
and scanned in renewed amazement
the silver of the bay.
Downward we’d plunge at a run, sheep scattering,
a chosen outcrop now in sight,
chalk-white against the green.
Reaching it, we’d perch breathless and grin.
Ahead we’d see the circle.
His face would now turn solemn.
His mossy tweed and earthen worsted
seamlessly scaped the land.
Slowly and in silence, we approached the stones.
My dad the Druid.
I cannot recall her name,
perhaps I never knew it.
She was small for her age,
swallowed by her uniform, bought to last.
Her wool beret she wore at an angle,
sloped toward the back.
Beneath her navy gymslip, pleated surge,
her spindly legs worked hard
to keep her steady.
Like a little bird she twittered and hopped
beside her satchel on the pavement.
The flock of us all waited impatiently
for the last bus home, hungry
for tea and freedom
Someone saw the bus,
whooped and pressed forward.
The front ones braced
and held their places firm.
Diesel stinking, engine snarling,
the big red box hurtled toward our stop,
squealing its ancient brakes.
The bird girl too pressed toward
the opening door, her small frame
half hidden by the bulging shoulders
of the big boys, hot from rugby.
Suddenly next to me I heard her gasp
as if it was her very last breath.
In this mean melee, her blue beret
had flown from her head, high into the sky,
and with it a wig of bright red hair.
Together our eyes followed its path,
like a bird of prey or a flying marsupial
or a creature escaped from the sea.
Up it flew into the damp grey sky
then down into the squirming crowd
of oblivious feet.
Like a spider my fingers pounced,
grabbed it up and set it back
on her bald, pink-freckled head.
Too late I saw it back to front.
Her face, frozen in shame,
peeked from behind drooping red ringlets.
Like twisting a lid on a jar,
I forced the mess to rights.
Our eyes met in sad confusion,
and I turned and fled.
They say everyone
remembers their first kiss.
But their first French kiss?
Didier Balou was no taller than
me at 13, though he
had a certain look.
Was it the cut of his trousers?
Did all boys on the continent
wear those funny shoes?
Slick their hair that way?
They’d told us to
welcome the exchange
students, make them feel
at home, so I met him
after tea when he said
he’d walk the dog.
He started right in,
not shy him.
One hand on the corgi’s lead,
the other pulling me to him,
his lips reached for mine.
No sooner had they
met their mark than the corgi
gave a mighty tug away.
It was all a laugh really,
though I felt a thrill.
We never did it again.
Learning to Drive
I’d rather go with Daddy,
a fella after all,
knows everything about cars and driving,
really teaches me.
But, yes, if it’s the only way,
I’ll go today with Mum,
get some practice in, go
down to the docks and back,
down to the shore, drive
all along the front perhaps,
wind down the windows and let the sea air in.
And off we start,
me hiccupping the clutch at the main road,
Mum wincing as I grind the gears of her old Riley,
on up the hill past the big church.
She doesn’t say much, perhaps just
a word or two about the rain clouds,
a comment about what we might have for tea.
Her body tells me though.
She stiffens and stiffens again,
her arms go rigid, her hands
white-knuckle clutch the sides of her seat
at every turn in the road.
And I speed up and hate her for her fear.
We get nearer to Barrow and we see
the traffic thickening, the wide swath of road
past the abbey soon three lanes deep in cars and buses.
Oh, how Mum gasps and splutters!
“How silly of us, darling, we forgot there’s a launch today.
We’ll have to turn back!”
“No, Mum, no,” I yell at her through the roar of traffic,
and put my foot to the pedal to squeak past
the big van from the local television station
to gain the faster lane, traffic now
at a snail’s pace, horns blaring, arms waving.
A fake smile of confidence on my face,
I play that clutch tenderly,
in, out, creep, in, out, creep,
on past all the shops,
down through the ship yards,
on past the cranes and the slag heaps at the steel works,
on, slowly on at 5 mph, squeezing on to
the big iron bridge to Walney,
emerging onto the far seashore,
with an escort of circling gulls.
We wind down the windows
and sit in silence,
breathing out to the sea.
My jumper was blue
with a little striped front piece,
the first I knitted all myself.
My case was small
to hide that I had gone.
He wore his tweed suit
like he always did.
He’d got on at Barrow,
and he already had us seats.
No one else but me
got on at Kirkby station.
The carriage was crowded,
full of men laughing together,
all headed for the jobs
up at Dounreay.
He was so nervous and so happy.
His grin was wide across his face.
I knew he had a ring in his pocket.
The ride up there would be a long one,
all the length of the Cumberland coast,
cross the border, through
the lowlands then the highlands.
But first we’d stop at Gretna Green.
I don’t know when my doubt set in.
I knew I loved him,
loved his loving too.
But perhaps it was the look it would bring
to my dad’s sweet face,
and my mum, she’d feel such shame.
Perhaps I thought seventeen
was a bit young too.
Getting close to Whitehaven,
almost an hour on,
I said I’d go to the loo,
and I took my little bag
but not my case.
I took a while in there,
hardest choice I’d ever made.
Just before the train
started out of Whitehaven station,
I opened the door
and jumped to the platform.
Off went the train
with him and my case inside.
I don’t know how long it took him
to see that I had gone.
By then I was across the lines
and hiding in the station.
In half an hour I was
on the next train back.
It was Mum that night
said I was a bit quiet.
It was years until
she and Dad knew.