Lee Shore

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Image by David Rowland

 

I remember the day the tied went out,
with my toes in shifting sand,
the day we walked by the restless sea
with our backs to the huddling town:
when the salt breeze lifted up your hair
and I failed to understand
that, on this day, the sky would fall
and the stars flee underground.

We strolled from crop to rocky crop
across the sun-streaked shore,
and laid our fleeting tracks of time
where none had been before;
and I called to you above the wind
but it chanced that you did not hear;
for you turned your steps towards the waves
and I was left standing there.

Perhaps it was the sea’s complaint
that rose and fell in your head;
perhaps, it wasn’t me at all,
nothing I did or said.
I like to think you didn’t know,
that it took you by surprise,
the day you shook the heavens
till the stars fell from the skies.

Abigail Elizabeth Ottley (previously Wyatt)

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Perhaps

(On the execution of Lady Jane Grey, 

Monday, February 12th, 1554)

Not, in truth, a martyr but a trembling girl,
how you must have quaked at the scene:
perhaps the spring surprised the dawn,
silvering the close-cropped winter grass;
and, perhaps, you leaned forward for one last glimpse
and felt your child’s heart leap,
a flightless bird put up too late,
its green wings yearning after skies;
and as he came back, in that blood-bespattered cart,
perhaps, you did cry out: ‘O, Guildford, Guilford,
O, my husband, O, my one true love’
as they lead you then where the scaffold stood
against the tower’s white walls.
And perhaps it was there you shook off
your fear, recalling how he laid you down,
an eager bride, half giddy, in the circle of those lifeless arms,
finding comfort, perhaps, to think how brief
a widowhood was destined to be yours
as you mounted the steps, your eyes still dry,
read your Miserere and died.
Or perhaps you did not. Perhaps you mourned
a women’s life unlived and wept to know the greed
of those who gambled with your head;
cursed, perhaps, the father who gave you up,
the husband who could only whine and die;
perhaps you railed against your fate
even as you seemed so much resigned.
‘I pray you despatch me quickly,’ you said
as you laid your white neck down.

Abigail Elizabeth Ottley Wyatt

All rights reserved.

A Ceremonial Occasion

I planned it, of course I did, and the devil was always in the detail. Doing such things on the spur of the moment must is the province of the young. Not that that the elderly can’t be impulsive but, let’s face it, the odds are against it.  Most of us, hidebound by caution, grow old before our time.  Not that there are many that would make it a choice to be staid and predictable: the sad truth is that, little by little, we lose the strength to resist.  

 

Anyway, speaking for myself, I do like to do things properly. And something like this, well, I’d mapped it all out – let me see – oh, a long time ago.

 

A state funeral, in case you’ve never seen one, is ever so much more than a spectacle.  Though, of course, it is spectacular, there’s no getting away from that. How could it not be with so much history behind it, all that pomp and ceremony, all the trappings of wealth and power?  There are your bright-eyed sailor boys, smart as new paint and proud to be doing their duty. I do like to see their well-scrubbed faces shining in the sun.  Then there are the horses, sleek and strong, but always so patient and so gentle; and the stern faced policemen who loiter on corners, keeping an eye on the crowds.

 

But a state funeral is also a very solemn occasion.  The whole nation seems to march to the beat of a single muffled drum.  You might argue, I suppose, that it isn’t about grief, especially if you’re watching on television.  Believe me, though, if you’re there in the flesh, it’s a very different thing.  Standing by the roadside as part of the crowd, you can’t help but feel the atmosphere. Oh, you can feel it alright, right down in your boots.

 

I was in the crowd in 1965, on the morning of 30th January.  Everything about that day is sharp and crystal clear.  I was eighteen years old and, the evening before, we went up on a Green-line bus.  We got off at Aldgate East and walked the rest of the way.  I remember I went with Ma, her sister, and a friend of mine from the factory. We all slept on the floor that night downstairs at Grandpa Clive’s.   But, before it was light, we were up and dressed and sitting down to our breakfast.  There was ice on the inside of the windows, it was that bloody cold.   

 

Anyway, we filled a flask and Ma made a whole loaf of sandwiches.  Cheese and pickle, egg and tomato, and corned beef with sauce. I remember those sandwiches.  We waited for hours so, without them, we wouldn’t have made it.   We laced our flask with a good nip of brandy and that was all the food we had.

 

Ma had been worried we’d get there too late to be able to see what was happening.  Somehow, though, we were lucky enough to find ourselves right at the front.  We found a place outside the Tower, a stone’s throw from the entrance.  If we’d been been camped on the pavement all night we couldn’t have got a better view.  

 

Everywhere you looked, on both sides, there were hundreds of people just waiting, huddled together in patient rows that mostly went four or five deep. Despite the weather, there were more than a few children and one daft cow had brought her poodle.  It sat in her shopping bag wrapped in a shawl and I remember it made Ma laugh.

 

I remember the soldiers that lined the whole route, very smart and handsome.  They stood stock still, like statues, with their rifles turned upside down. They kept their heads bowed down so low, and no one moved even a muscle, except that one boy seemed about to faint and had to be helped back to his feet. Then there was a silver band whose drums were draped in black fabric.  It gave the beat a muffled note that sounded very solemn and sad.  I remember how, when the coffin passed by, there was suddenly no more music.  The cortege went on its way to the rhythm of a single slow drum. 

 

It was eerie then how the silence grew.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Where the guns had been booming all the way from St Paul’s, now there was the silence of the grave.  Then they dipped all the cranes right along Hayes Wharf, and the sight of that just hammered it home.  It was as if, when those monsters bowed their long necks, they somehow spoke for all of us.  Ma turned to me and her eyes were rimmed red and her cheeks were wet with her tears.

 

The Havengore was just setting off on its voyage up the Thames. Ma squared her shoulders and bowed her head and hissed to us to do the same.

 

‘That man saved our hides.’ she said. ‘He was the saviour of this country.  When the rest of them would have given up, it’s because of him we’re free.’

 

I’m sorry.  I’m rambling on.  That’s not what you’re here for, is it? You want me to tell you what’s going on today. But memory is a funny thing and it’s odd how these details come back to you.  How can the world be so much the same and yet so very much changed? Mr Churchill now, say what you like, he was a proper national hero. Someone who deserved a bit of a send-off. You don’t begrudge it for a man like him.

 

            A cup of tea?  That’s kind of you, dear. I am a bit shaky.  No, no, honestly, I’ll be alright. I just need to catch my breath.  Do you know, duckie, when I come to think of it, you have a look of our Ryan about you.  He’s going to be a fireman, you know.  We’re all very proud.

 

I like a man in uniform.  I expect your wife does too.

 

Of course, I’m not sorry, not in the least.   I meant all those nasty things I shouted.   I would have said a good deal more but I’m afraid your young policemen shut me up.  The balloons were a good idea, though, all those beautiful colours.  It took me all night but I wrote on every one:

                                        Remember the Belgrano Dead?