Homecoming: To My Family
Homecoming: To My Family
Out on the Heath, night still glows as approaching images
shine in the pleasure of travel and skim the pre-war semis.
From Staines to Bell Corner, screeching broomsticks blast
above rowan, birch and maidenhair with a sly wink.
Slowly the rush hour struggles around its eagerness to get away—
children or hardened travellers, all squabbling affectionately
between hotel and multi-storey: it accelerates, brakes,
speeds off again to the drunkenness of imminent escape.
There, a year is nothing but endless holidays, a shuffling
sleight of lands on the pilgrim arrivals and departures board.
The Bird of Thunder, meanwhile, stacked high and circling,
knows all destinations and announces that day is about to break.
Below, curtains are pulled back on bedroom windows
and from duvets each cold eye meets this high processional.
They know expansion is inevitable; they have heard the groaning by night
(as others before heard Druids), the reversing engines howl,
spilling kerosene, ruining maths lessons, music recitals.
The engineers never cease, night or day. It is a gift.
Peacefully glittering, the silver tubes pass over
the clouds, rose-tinted above their Himalayan snow line,
and higher still beyond the stratosphere, the unblinking orbits
of the future trace their plans, the shuttles, stations, satellites
and whatever unspoken possibilities the deus ex machina decides
as it looks down clairvoyant on the cloud the age has created
for its pleasure, for its pastimes: enough wire to entangle ourselves
but not to hang with these highwaymen at the Bell where new developments—
the mall and leisure centre and luxury apartments—proclaim
green shoots for the drought-afflicted, an ozone summer,
the cumulus humilis drifting, the windsock proud.
Even that slow cortege towards the crematorium seems
off on the journey of a lifetime as, passing the demolished Regal,
you recall The Sound of Music or where Memory Discs began
your first Unfinished and something touches the very depths, opening
choice and opportunity, trams changing to trolley-buses,
then Green Lines and now an express out to the departures lounge
on the Heath and a joyful urge to fly off to pastures new.
Addressing the unknown—that’s always been the business of poetry,
so I’ve done my stretch with religion, with angels, spirits and the rest,
hoping for the best. Who hasn’t drawn alongside a prayer
watching the news, thinking what if that refugee in Afghanistan
or Iraq were me—and thinking too of the Boat People
we set out to help, their thanks, their constant smiling, while our own
parents had pulled an empire down about their ears, pirates
drowning in powerlessness? Meantime, I am rocked by the bus,
raised from wheelchair level, the driver jokes about the weather
and laughs (taken our bus lanes, innit) at Olympians, as he cruises
through the shadow of my grammar school, through tenses, cases, subjects,
veils and hoods and tattoos, rolling me up to the bus stop.
It’s warm in the sun here where there used to be an open-air pool
and once a Red Cross fête. There’s the old air-raid shelter.
Front gardens mainly tarmacked, but privet and laburnum
and a Boeing to welcome me back to the semi in the cul-de-sac.
Everything seems as it was, even a boy-racer’s thunder-beat
feels meant for me, every immigrant face that of family.
No surprise. It’s where you were raised, the lost orchard.
What you’re looking for is close, is coming out to reach you
and it’s surely not coincidence you stand like a boy engulfed
by the joy of jet engines at your old house, identifying
ways to take to the air again—to pursue that contrail
this great monster overhead has lain as it lumbers its way
off to the Rhine or Como or further across the Med
and up the Nile to Lake Nasser, shooting all the Cataracts
to the Rift Valley, the Indian Ocean, even Zanzibar.
Yet, red door that I see in dreams so brightly,
you’d say it’s home I’m looking for, the winking landing light
that passes over Prospect Close, the cinder Backway
(hear that old Lexicon card riffling my spokes),
the Pit, the Sarsen Stone, and the woods at Cranford, secret
yew glades where I made movies, exposed the ghost
of a stately home, and especially Heathrow: to play on the lifts,
or in the Queen’s Building, looking for tail and wing, for exotic
livery and fruit machines, happy prisoner of my teens.
They’ll take me in. This is the sound of my earliest childhood.
Hearing it, it triggers all kinds of half-forgotten instincts.
Yet they are undiminished—in some ways more potent than ever.
Such treasures, the suns come bursting from the fruit machine.
Yes, the old things are here, an orchard where apples still hang
but no one is going to pick them, this paradise remains.
And best of all is the discovery of what’s been kept safe
beneath the insulated loft, the rainbow wallpaper,
that reduces me to idiocy. Sheer delight. Another day, then,
we can go and look at where the garden used to be,
the loganberry cordons, one Spring Bank Holiday, when Dad
is at home, we can talk about all that’s happened and it will come back.
I’ve weighed up many things since those days and for too long
have said nothing about my spiritual cultivar, first set
in Heston, Chamberlain’s paper airfield, the birthplace of English
music’s most famous unknown, and the source of Elizabeth’s
sweet communion manchet; it’s time to summon more than
the metal angels of Heathrow—the immortal ones, and one
I first divined in this house in those early years, whose roof
was torn off by a plane one night, open in a moment
of renewal and glory to the music of the spheres. As if you could hear
Hark the Herald broadcast from our candleless piano, scattered
by Mum’s fingers across the neck of the banjo to our neighbours,
inviting them to a secular Christmas, to this essence of family.
As we sit round the table and my father is not like a drunk
in his diabetic hypo, whom should I say thank you to?
Is it God, is there a God? If there is, isn’t this too trivial
for Him to care about? Isn’t this in the suburbs of His concerns?
It might be better to be silent, we don’t have adequate language,
make the most of this time between flights, leave the heart to beat.
Yet the right kind of music, the right words, might perhaps
please or draw a response from skies clogged with ash
that allow presences to draw closer. If we do this,
the sacrifices that lie under every holiday-making runway
shouldn’t shudder—like it or not, poetry has to absorb
such painful undertones, internalise them, and let the rest fly.