Four Poems

Hugo Williams goes to school

The Age of Steam

Remember porters? Weatherbeaten old boys
with watery blue eyes
who were never around when you wanted them?
You had to find one
before you could go anywhere in 1953.
It was part of saying goodbye.
‘Quick, darling, run and find a porter,
while I get your ticket.
I’ll meet you at the barrier ...’

I run off across the station forecourt
in a series of sudden dashes, panicky knight moves
which leave my head spinning
as I glance over my shoulder at my trunk.
Inside are my darts, my throwing-knife set,
my signalling torch, my True Romance magazines –
everything I need to survive
in the months ahead. Even my compass.

There are no porters anywhere,
even in the service lift. My trunk is stuck
like a lump in my throat. I see Mr Ray
standing over by the barrier, bending his knees,
jingling the change in his pocket.
Report to the Master-on-Duty.
Collect your sheets.
Put away your things on the right shelf.

My mother appears like a new sun
from behind a cloud. She is smiling radiantly,
as if to welcome me home.
‘I won’t wait, darling. You know how I hate goodbyes.
You’ve got your comics and your cars.
I’ve written to you ...’
She has a porter in tow: nothing can save me now.

A last gasp of Moment Supreme
as she leans over me, then nothing at all
but the ribbon of her smell unravelling,
the station clock moving on with a little jerk,
the whistle blowing.
This is it then – the great leap backwards
into make-believe, the covered wagons
drawn in a circle on the dusty plain,
flaming tomahawks flying through the air.

Remember porters? Weatherbeaten old boys
with watery blue eyes
who waited with you till your train came in?
They found you a corner seat
and stowed your luggage in the net above your head.
They touched their caps and thanked you
as they struggled through the sliding doors
into the corridor. I used to worry
that they wouldn’t have time to get down.

A Promise

Stewart is ‘Suet’. On a whim
a Mr Park takes hold of him.

He asks the question ‘Why so fat?’
and what can Suet say to that?

O foolish Suet, slow to see,
that Mr Park is fat as thee!

But Mr Park says Suet’s slack
and sends him round the football track.

‘And Suet, baby, just for fun,
take your belongings on your run.’

Now Suet crawls to Mr Park,
dragging a promise through the dark.

Lights Out

We’re allowed to talk for ten minutes
about what has happened during the day,
then we have to go to sleep.
It doesn’t matter what we dream about.

Postscript

I went back the other day
to collect my motorbike
from the local police station.
I couldn’t believe
that lonely northern outpost
where I went to school
was barely half an hour
from London by train:

not far away and long ago
as I had imagined,
but facing the future
surrounded by Kodak bungalows
and flyovers,
its dreaded Tower
a little spiral staircase
with geraniums in window boxes.

I skidded on the gravel
outside the headmaster’s study,
shot round the side
past the library, the Chapel,
the ‘Private Side’,
hoping to escape without being seen
via the tradesmen’s entrance
into Locker’s Lane.

Blocking my path,
clipboard and pen at the ready,
stood JADS, brick-faced
Classics master and assistant head,
shouting my name
and bearing down on me,
exactly the same
as when he was alive.