Early Morning Swim
Every year now you make your face
a little fainter in its vellum photo-frame,
as if you were washing off your make-up with a towel
and catching the last train home.
You have forgotten how to storm
and shout about the place, but not how to gaze
abstractedly over our shoulders into this room
that is not your room any more. What do you see
that we don’t see? Why don’t you mind
if we are late coming down to breakfast,
or we don’t ring up as much as we should?
At this distance, your voice grows fainter on the line,
your words harder to catch. With one hand
you shield your eyes from the sun, as if you have decided
to overlook the way we dress to come up to London
or go to the theatre. You can’t see me,
but I can see you, walking away from us, throwing back
your shoulders as you breathe the sea air,
pretending not to limp over the rocky ground.
It is early morning, time for our early morning swim.
You lead the way in your towelling dressing-gown
down the alley behind the hotel, us two boys
sleep-walking along behind you, stumbling
and grumbling a little because it is so early.
We don’t understand that this could be our last
swim together, our last chance to prove that we are men.
We don’t want to go of course, but we do really.
The water will be cold at this time of day.
I’m your father, remember?
I used to think he was naturally like that –
imperious, categorical, always in the wrong
and rightly so, the only man in the world
who could talk about Opera and French mustard
as if they were the same sort of thing,
banging the table, saying ‘Come off it, old boy!
I’m your father, remember? – clapping his hands
and when a waiter busied round his chair, saying
‘Steady on, you’re not a knife-thrower.
Now go out to the kitchen and start again.’
When I stole a comb from the Gentlemen’s in the Savoy
he made me take it back. If I’d only murdered
the attendant, all would have been forgiven.
I used to think he was naturally like that.
The brow of the hill rose steeply
ahead of me, a patch of light
like a window in its polished surface.
I would set my foot on that slick
of black ice, its luminous white line
would lead me before long
over the horizon of my father’s head.
Man and Superman
A dedicated student of the play –
that was my father’s vision
of his start in life. ‘When I was your age
I’d seen every play in London.
I read plays for fun.
I queued half-way down the Strand
to see Barrymore and du Maurier
in Man and Superman. I sat in the gallery
with the book open on my knee ...’
It didn’t happen that way.
His widowed mother
was a Gallery First Nighter
who took him along with her
to all the popular star vehicles of the day
and told him he was handsome.
He failed the Army Exam
and went to RADA for a year to meet women.
When I spun my line
about wanting to do the same
he hit the roof. ‘I suppose you think
you’d be famous overnight
and make pots or money. Well, you might.
But then again you might not.
It’s my job to think of things like that.
Tell me honestly, how many plays in London
have you actually seen?’
I clenched my fists underneath the table
and muttered something about television.
I didn’t want to work.
I wanted to make him laugh.
I wanted to make him choke.
I told the one about the constipated airman
and said the last thing first
and had to start again.
His jaw went slack. His lip came out.
‘It’s rather unfunny, isn’t it?’