Memories of the Linen Room

Craig Raine

‘Fetch me the handkerchief; my mind misgives …’

Othello (III, iv, 89)

In the dormitory, boys laced up
their rugby boots like parcels,

knowing the mud outside would add
that final touch of scaling wax.

It’s taken them twenty years
to be delivered by an accident:

I see a pint of gritty mussels
for sale and think of wet boots

on the changing-room floor.
The fishmonger’s cold red hands

are locked in a scrum and I feel
a strange nostalgie de la boue,

for mud stamped to a solitaire board,
as if a puzzle were suddenly solved.

My hair still wet from the shower,
I’m going again to the linen room.

Daylight glows under a door
like the bar of an electric fire.

Inside are six ironed handkerchiefs
that represent home to a boy

for whom almost anything will do,
except the matron’s labrador

bending by the bicycle sheds
to its inch of lipstick

the colour of rhubarb. He comes
instead to the linen room, this boy

whose heart is like a bathing-suit,
heavy with sand and sally water,

five hundred miles from the sea.