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THE GUN EMPLACEMENT

For Doreen Levin

 

He was on duty the night Liverpool burned.

They watched the orange glow over in the east.

He remembered the convoy earlier that day

strung out along the horizon, waiting

for high tide. The Lance Jack, Scouser One,

told them where it was. One of the Taffies said,

‘My brother’s there too’, leaving things unspoken.

 

In the silence Saul wondered if Tilbury

was being done as well, the bombs drifting,

as usual, over Whitechapel.

He thought of his parents in the Anderson,

hoped they were there, behind the bakery –

and his little sisters somewhere in Devon.

Pops would be joking, his mother softly

humming all his sisters’ favourite song:

‘Sheyn bin ich sheyn, sheyn is mayn nomen.’

He should be at the ack-ack battery

in Vicky Park, up Hackney way, not here,

half way to Ireland, stuck safe on a Welsh hill

looking out to sea, where Jerry would never,

ever come. The moon appeared, lighting the waves

in the bay far below, and some of the crew

briefly, and the tall gun they all tended.

 

They were from all over, which, supposed Saul,

with their more or less unintelligible

accents was Churchill’s idea of a joke.

Each of them had a nickname. His was ‘Hovis’,

which The Prof had had to explain to him –

the family bakery mostly making

beigels and babkas (now without nuts).

Behind his back, to Taffy Three and Four,

he knew he was ‘Jew Boy’. None of them were really

all that long out of school – except The Prof,

who had been training to be a surveyor.

He and The Prof shared Woodbines, and some things

about home. They were friends he supposed.

 

They were stood down at dawn, and had some hours kip.

Later, he and The Prof walked down the hill

through the woods. Prof named the flowers they passed:

cowslip, celandine, wood anemone,

and a bank of wild strawberries in bloom –

and told him the gun emplacement was built

on the ruins of a Welsh prince’s palace,

and beneath that was a fort from before

the Romans came, or the Viking long boats

sailed along the coast. ‘My grandfather,’ said Saul,

‘and his brothers were horse thieves in Latvia.’

The Prof looked startled. Saul paused, then continued.

‘They’d steal the horses from the plains, and hide them

in the forests, sell them at far away markets.’

‘Well…right,’ said The Prof. ‘I don’t know what to say,’

and, after a beat, ‘Were you born there?’

‘I’m a Cockney!’ laughed Saul, and The Prof nodded.

 

At the foot of the hill was a lane, a track,

grassy and overhung with trees in full leaf.

As they walked they noticed at the edges

dead birds, and counted them – forty in all.

Even in the shade of the canopy

and in death Saul saw that their feathers shimmered.

‘Starlings,’ said The Prof. ‘Poisoned perhaps’.

As they made their way back up the hillside

to the camouflaged emplacement at its top

Saul knew that, when he next wrote to his sisters,

he would only mention the strawberries

and their pretty white flowers.

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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4 Responses
  • Catherine Reynolds
    November 8, 2020

    What a delight to read this. I hung on every word, imaging the scene, the time, the conversations, the perceptions of men thrown together in the tumult of war.

    A fitting and emotional reminiscence for Armistice Day.

  • Keith Johnson
    November 8, 2020

    Marvelous. You handle occasion, mood and conversation so well – consummate poetic drama.

  • John Huddart
    November 12, 2020

    An exceptional piece of writing, as Keith says. It is as if that time were with us still. Rich in observation and restraint – full of unspoken feeling and passion. Loved it. And somewhere in the background is the sense that Dad’s Army lies in wait – itself a fine piece of observation, on a different stage. Perhaps that’s a bit fanciful!

  • David Selzer
    November 12, 2020

    Dad’s Army always lies in wait!

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