Cousins

Alan Jenkins

A Sunday at home, since I still called them that,
the house, the garden and the patch of lawn in front
long gone to weeds and waist-high grasses
that I crawled round, hacking wildly with the shears
he’d once wielded, thick with rust now, blunt
and useless, while she poked at flowerbeds or sat
marooned in a deckchair and wiped her glasses
that had misted with her hot flush, or with tears . . .
Then, after I had followed her indoors

for a ‘sit-down’ and a cup of tea, a ‘chat’,
I drifted from room to room and idly opened drawers;
with thumb-stained packs of cards, a pen that leaked
and corkscrews from Africa or France, I found
a locket that held two faded comma-curls
of the hair ‘they were famous for’, two girls
in blackened-silver frames, pretty, cherub-cheeked;
with them, a stack of letters, brittle, browned,
in your great loss . . . such loveliness, beyond compare . . .

All innocent smiles, these sepia-tinted twins,
preserved intact in that prehistory in which
her family had lived, ‘comfortable’, not rich,
were her cousins twice-removed, long-dead –
two angels, taken from us, one letter said,
that we might love them the more; and had they since
stood in for all the losses she could neither share
nor bear? To what had they been born –
white dresses brushing the croquet lawn,

sun-blinds in the high street, whiskery chaps
who offered tigerish blazer-arms, the mill,
tall masts at the ends of lanes, and blood-red maps? –
Men were employed to keep the Empire going
in distant, dark-skinned places, names no one had heard
till then, where the sun was not allowed to set but where
the light was fiercer anyway. It was God’s will,
like the deaths they bloomed to, leeches clinging
to their heads in place of clouds of hair . . .

I put them back and went out to the garden – there
the honeysuckle dripped, and dew-drops hung
like convex mirrors in which I saw glowing
all that I’d been promised, if I could only wait
and work for it, the rewards of not dying young –
suburban arcady, a deckchair and a blackbird
perched in the branches of laburnum, singing –
and all of it would end with her, and wouldn’t care.
‘Come on, dear, come back in. It’s getting late.’