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For The First Time (1993)

 

Seeing my father for the first time
in that old caravan in Cottenham
wrapped up against the cold,
feeling his nervousness in the air,
and the woman who called him father
making tea and being kind;
seeing the home that his wife made
glad that she’d died, glad he was alone.

Seeing the bathroom and the double bed
and saying “How nice, how nice,”
sipping my tea by the fireside
examining his flickering face
crushing anger in a clenched fist,
tears in the aching sockets of my eyes,
glad that he was old and ill,
questions, questions burning in my mind.

His passion of forty years past dead
in the oily air, bitterness gone to dust,
selected memories shut behind a door
whose key was lost – to me so sorely lost.
He’d turned away from us, wiped us out,
never came back to say “I am your Dad.”
We never knew his face, his touch, his voice,
no hand to hold – no goodnight kiss.

When asked “What does your father do?”
I used to stare in open mouthed surprise:
but then I didn’t understand
what other kids had fathers for.
There were only three of us, and Mum,
isolated by her sad disgrace
her family beyond our reach ‘up North’,
his, all around, behind a silent wall.

“Why?” I asked, “Why?” He closed his yellow eyes,
“I knew how you were” he said, “all your lives.
My brother kept an eye. Sometimes I came myself
and from a distance watched you play.”
“Why?” I asked. “In later years …?”
He coughed awhile. “I knew, I knew” he said.
Quick to the rescue his step-daughter came
pouring tea and photographs on the pain.
Easy again he slipped into the past
showing his favourite picture .. of himself.
“They called me ‘Bull’ at the steel works” he said,
puffing his chest and straightening in the chair;
and I knew then, after forty years of pain
his love was for himself, the muscle and the blood
pumping in his groin, women a prize,
children an outflow to be forgot.

In sepia brown the picture came
across the tea cups and the empty plates,
“Mum and Dad” he said. My grandparents!
I didn’t know, I never thought that far!
I looked at her face, soft and motherly,
biting my lip, biting back the tears:
there were uncles and cousins too
a whole generation that we never met.

He talked about his father then
oblivious of me, of who I was,
the happy days they’d had among
boats and beaches, fishing and the sea;
and I realized, among those old fishermen
smoking their clay pipes on the promenade
that I passed a thousand times as a boy,
was my grandfather .. who never said.

Somehow we rose to go.
Shook hands, waved from the car window
and drove the twenty miles back home,
my wife and I, back in our own lives.
Next time I took my son:
he at least met his grandfather – once.
I met my father twice. It was enough
until I watched his coffin to the flame.

 

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