My childhood turf: four roads and one dark path
we called a twittern. Half its length it ran
between the big house, Glebelands, and our six-
foot fence, then turned its back on us, dog-legged
away, but kept its tight embrace on all
the mysteries the shrubs and railings hid.
In there were demons, types unspecified.
Lights blazed at night and blinds were drawn, but no
one came or went, the gate was always locked.
"Beware the dog!" it said. There was no dog,
the whole gang knew, just dragons in the grounds.
The dog-leg was the only doggie thing
in sight. And standing in its corner, tight
against our fence from where its flickering light
fell softly on the path in both directions
for a yard or two at least, among blown
leaves and litter, my own lamp, my gas light,
lit each evening by an old man with a
ladder. As punctual as sun and moon,
he'd come at dusk and I would wait - but with
this prayer: "Please God, this one night, make the lamp
man late - and very late!" (His coming was
my time for bed - at least when winter came.)
The twittern took you to another road:
Love Lane. More mystery, more need to know
of things the adults talked about in code.
Love Lane had one enormous pearl of such great
interest that all else paled beside it:
I loved the evil-smelling smoke and fumes
discharged by its satanic Gas Works - all
the more because the grown-ups hated them.
That black hulk cast its shadow far and wide - and
well within its ambit lived my friend Paul Death.
(De' ath, it should have been, to be precise -
though no one ever had been that precise.
Death, he was meant to be, and death he was.)
My house was number one. Big deal? Had that
been it, the whole of it, there would have been
few bragging rights, but there was more, much more:
the road was Queen Anne's Gardens - which, the way
I'd say it, had a touch of gravitas.
The inference was meant: "Beat that!" Few could,
of course. Now add my regal-sounding name,
my David, Alexander, King... how would
they not have been impressed? The house that thought
itself a palace looked straight down Glebe Path
towards a green, Church Road, the Town Hall and
the fire brigade (these last two out of sight).
Firemen were housed in our road and Glebe Path.
Heroes we had as neighbours! Comics too. Star
turns, for we would see them, jackets flapping,
half on, half streaming out behind, caught, twisted
and misshapen like so many broken
wings on injured birds, their owners fluttering,
in half-flight, hopping, stumbling from our sight
the moment that the bells went down, their wives in
close pursuit, arms stretched towards them, helmets in
their hands, but losing ground. We'd laugh and cheer.
The Green possessed an air raid shelter, built
of brick, above ground, famed residence
of our own Parish Belle. She had a corner
dedicated to her bits and pieces.
The grown-ups that we knew all spoke of her
as "rank". The "rank", it seemed was "higher" than
the gas works boasted. Some confusion. Some
thought her a princess or a queen. Whatever,
no one would bother her. She came and went.
Just once she had a sack of "rank" manure
as a bed. Too much! She'd have to go - she
or it. At which the penny dropped for us.
In Church Road, close to where it joined Glebe Path,
a corner shop, Sunshine and Bombs, the name
a soubriquet, of course, conferred upon it
and the lady owner, by my father
when she'd told him how she hated sunshine
and how she much preferred the German bombs!
A short way further on was where a plane
machine-gunned Paul and I as we walked home
from school. Or maybe not. A German plane
and very low - we saw the crosses on
its wings. And damaged too: thin trails of smoke,
and both the engines stuttering. And that,
perhaps, is what we heard, though at the time
we had no doubts - and dropped down flat and lay
there in the gutter 'till its sound had gone.
Much further on, a bend, another dog-leg,
knobby at the knee this one, the knobbies
being three: my school, The Parish Church - where
I would soon become an altar boy - and,
most protuberant of all, The Star, a pub
whose name alas the locals lent the school.
Beyond this point I did not venture - ever.
Had I done so, Merton Abbey might have
hove in view, as might Lord Nelson's home, where
waited patiently - or not - his Josephine.
First day at school, the teacher telling us
to wrap up - scarves, gloves, coats and hats, the lot.
Home time. What else could it have been? I went.
My mother hoovering. Dismay that I
had walked so far and crossed a busy road
alone. The head all smiles and pats on back.
Next time to wear my thinking cap. Bafflement.
And then again, by socks that needed to
be pulled. Why do the grown-ups use such codes?
More dragons roamed the graveyard round the church.
One grave, its stone lid lifted quite enough
for braver souls to put their hands inside,
was known by all to be their lair.
My father said the only dragon was
the priest. Officiating at the war
memorial, he'd walked away, left all
the people and their planned observance high
and dry at its most solemn point - and all
because he had detected in the crowd
a body of dissenters. Methodists!
A memory of adult stuff - my first.
The moon petals the sea. Rose petals the sea. Stone sea. Stone petals. Rose petals of stone. Stone rising before me. Sea moves. How moves...
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What makes us suppose that only the living grieve? Now all but lost in this new and familiar world of tall, leaning-together buildings...
extract from the poem Koi by John Burnside All afternoon we've wandered from the pool to alpine beds and roses ...