For days after the stroke, she laid bed-bound,
misdiagnosed – the Doctor said ‘Bells Palsy’
of her weeping eye and tilted frown, her hand
cold-numb below the eiderdown. The telly
in the corner spun blue-light, an anarchy
of voices. My father, dying himself, and lost
brought trays of tea and plates of buttered toast.
Outside, September shook the plane trees, steered
a chain of infants to their turquoise pegs
to hang their anoraks and wait for her –
small bodies on the story mat, cross-legged.
For thirty years, these orange months had leap-frogged,
forward-rolling on, and grown-up children stopped her
on the high street, hello miss, it’s me, remember?
Inside, she heard the freight trains jogging past.
My father shuffled room to room, and phoned me
which he’d never done, and whispering, asked
if I would come. I didn’t listen to the worry
on his tongue – old friends from university
sat huddled at my kitchen bench, late supper,
the night’s denouement, shots of flamed Sambuca
with coffee beans for health and happiness,
prosperity…I remember her body, glistening
in the bath, the rolls of belly, each one pressed
upon the other, licked by water, and her skin,
her veins, blue flowering on porcelain,
in the small blue bathroom with its frosted window
and rusted taps, a coral print kimono
hanging on its hook, its ribbon ties,
how through an inch of open door, I’d watch her,
the secret breasts and stomach, groin and thighs,
the way all daughters must survey their mothers.
Her body was a blueprint, harbinger
of duty, worry, pain. Downstairs, my Nan
smoked roll-ups in her navy dressing gown.
I didn’t go. But there was some arrangement
for dad to drive me here or there one night.
By the sign for Upney tube, red-blue florescent,
I waited, waited, until an hour late,
I dialled home in the blunt and pissy light
of the payphone on the hill, that slope between
the streets where I grew up, and the A13
where industry began – black factories,
the dirt-blue river, sewage works and gas drums,
the toxic heaps of Beckton Alps, old grease
and slag and stone. Above the traffic thrum
I heard her lift the telephone, said Mum,
it’s me, and the breath I heard I knew was hers
but when I spoke again she didn’t answer
and when I spoke again, she didn’t speak.
Young commuters pushed the station turnstiles
raised umbrellas, rushed off into the dark
and still my mother didn’t answer. Rain nailed
the phone box, dashes hardening to hail,
and I was shouting at her, shouting Where is he?
Why can’t you hear me, Mum? Mum, can you hear me?
My dad pulled in, a blur behind his wipers,
just lost or late, and then as I was hanging up
she spoke, a word or two I couldn’t hear
but her voice was formal, small, like she was high-up
in a building with a tiny office at the top
with little windows, in a city she didn’t know,
in a cold blue country a hundred years ago –