Outside a Tent at Babylon, 1909
‘Are you ready?’ calls the German archaeologist,
standing with his back to the sun.
‘We need to see the tent behind you.’
Gertrude Bell steps over the guy-ropes.
She’s got a horrible cold –
caught by lying in a draughty hall
drawing the plans of Ukheidir.
‘When I ask my men,’ she explains,
‘to help me measure the castles,
nothing will induce them to leave
their rifles behind. The measuring-tape
is forever getting caught in the stocks,
and I have to wait for hours
while the idiots disentangle it!’
The German’s the picture of health.
He offers her some Tiger Balm
he picked up in Cappadocia.
He’s been excavating in Iraq for years:
‘Mutti calls me her little Maulwarf!’
‘You seem to have lots of equipment,’
she replies, waiting for him to get ready.
Rhamia, their only child, is coming home!
Not since the day they kissed her
and she drove away to be a Muslim
has there been such life at the Vicarage.
They hurry down to the orchard to call Boo,
the goose. She runs up like a lamb
and pokes her white neck into their basket –
on the lookout for food as usual.
In the kitchen Cook is podding bowls of peas
in front of an open recipe book.
Garnish with watercress. Stuff with sage.
She chops up the onions and feels tears
run down her cheeks like mercury.
Rhamia, who used to be called Jenny,
walks out of the drawing-room.
She calls to Abdullah, her son,
Come out to the yard now, and the boy
comes running. His old grandparents
watch him from the window.
He slits the white neck of the goose
with a carving-knife and as the blood
runs over his wrists he calls out
‘Allah! Allah!’ His high child’s voice
rings out across the fields.
Then he takes the body in to Cook,
who is rolling out pastry in the kitchen.