Tag Archives Geprge VI

ALMA MATER

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When Queen Elizabeth died I remembered

that my uncle Tom died the same month

as her father, King George. Both were veterans

of the First World War – one of the Battle

of Ypres, one of the Battle of Jutland.

Both private and prince were heavy smokers

till near the end – roll ups, Benson & Hedges.

 

Tom was gassed at Ypres. After the war

he became a pastry chef until

the Depression. Later, during the next

World War and subsequently, he made

packing cases in an aircraft factory.

Children take for granted the adults

around them. Later we avoid unpicking

memories – so it had not occurred to me

until now that Tom appeared to have no friends,

no interests, or possessions, or

to wonder why. And, of course,

there is no one alive left to ask.

 

After his death, I was moved into his small,

impersonal bedroom above the hall –

in our 1920s rented, pebble-dashed,

three bedroom semi with a privet hedge.

When Tom was alive six of us lived there.

The five who remained were me, my mother,

her older sisters, and my grandmother;

an only child, two widows, and two spinsters;

four formative women, who are still vivid in my heart.

But Uncle Tom evades me. Perhaps

he had shut down his life some time before.

 

I lived there from age five to sixteen.

Though death and loss and regret were near

neighbours, and my granny and her daughters

talked mostly about the past – making me

both risk-averse and ambitious –   it was not

a cheerless place. It was a house with books;

an upright piano, which I learned to play,

and for which I had a ready audience;

and a number of pictures – including

a print of Somerscales’ ‘Off Valparaiso’

on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

So we all passed it at least twice a day.

 

Tom would have looked at it, presumably,

though perhaps he was always too fatigued

in his fifties then from physical work

with lungs damaged in youth by the mustard gas.

Whether I actually did or not, memory

tells me I would stop and study the print.

Someone must have told me Valparaiso

is a port on South America’s west coast,

and the ship featured in the picture

must have been heading for the harbour,

since a pilot boat is waiting for it,

which the ship acknowledges but refuses.

The three masted barque, from beyond Cape Horn

and the Southern Ocean, into the azure

Pacific seas, is steering almost

towards us, the wind in its sails – an image

of grace and purpose, of power, and of risk.

 

 

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