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.