(Prize-winning poem of the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2016)
I am Portia, daughter of the silversmith.
Here’s a stool – take it; we live in hard times.
What news on Cheapside? I hear a coffee-house
is coming, a new gathering place.
We shall talk.
The sea is creeping in, do you notice? The sea is bringing …
we shall not talk of that.
Yesterday I rounded a corner and came upon
a large plot of weeds and rubble; a starving cat
threaded through mounds of shapeless stones –
there will be a crumb of comfort for it somewhere.
A square of cotton sheeting hung on a dirty clothesline.
For months I’ve walked like driftwood through these streets.
You don’t know when …
One day I found a bridge I’d not observed before
and slowly climbed up to its mid-point,
to the top of its arch; I turned and waited.
The canal slept as tiny ripples fluttered.
The sun left the water first; then it left the rooftops.
Try a triangle. First
cut a square, then fold
corner to corner. Slice
along the beautiful crease.
You get not only one,
but two, triangles.
At night I would create
sun and moon and all the silvery stars,
and fields of buttercups,
gnarled oak trees, fictitious
aunts and uncles lounging
on white picnic cloths;
and ballroom nights with dizzy waltzing.
Now when I try to fold
a square, the corners will not
meet. Not even one
The room is cold. It lacks curtains.
Standing at the window, I see Martha
walking in the street below
with her basket of breads. She pauses,
looking round as if hearing a voice
or remembering something.
It must be significant, this moment,
because it comes back to me all these years later.
My father dug his own grave.
Some days. Not always.
An extra few inches on Thursdays.
He’d toss the dry soil aside into a spreading heap.
My mother saw stars.
She didn’t want to look.
Too bright, too far, too other-worldly.
My father was a suit-and-tie man.
Even on the beach – well, maybe not the tie.
He’d roll up his trouser legs, take off his black shoes and socks, and tread gingerly
across the sand to the water’s edge, where he’d stand
gazing towards the hazy horizon or scrutinising his toes
as the white foam curled round them.
My mother wore a pinny.
She’d roll raw fish-cakes into balls, flour
flying all over the wooden table and onto the linoleum floor.
Washday was Mondays, if it wasn’t drizzling; the mangle lived in the garage.
Once hung up, the sheets blew this way and that,
trying to break free of their wooden pegs.
At my uncle’s funeral, my distracted mother wore her gardening clothes.
What’s more reassuring than a clock
that has stopped? Let other clocks do their rounds,
endlessly repeat the hours, sway their
pendulums genteelly, settle into
monologues of chimes and ticks and tocks.
I prefer the clock above the old fire-
station, steadfastly reliable in its
fixity, day and night, whether
encrusted with winter frost, swathed in mist,
or shimmering in a glow of August sun.
It’s not like the others, that have such a
poor sense of timing – either racing
like the clappers so that when you look up
after only a minute, hours have gone;
or on the contrary, hanging about, going
nowhere, especially in the small hours of the
night, or when you’re waiting for the bus.
But this old clock stands firm, so that every
time I raise my eyes up to its tower,
I know it will be always ten past four.