The Oak Coffer

Lee Harwood

for my uncle, Alfred Miles
1909-87

‘they created a desert, and they call it peace’[*]
and that could have been said of Carthage,
though it wasn’t. It was much closer to home.
Scattered blocks of stone, and dust, the stumps of houses.
And now left with men who lie, no matter what,
for little reason, vanity or fear,
but who lie, amid smiling cruelty.

‘Now how will the little people get out of this one?’

There was a stagnation, the lily pond clogged with weed,
fish deformed, as people drift, as I drift.
Some forms of inertia and indifference

while every Saturday morning you polished
the oak coffer, week after week.
The scent of beeswax in that narrow hall.
The wood polished till you could see your face in it.
A decent man who’d always been told what to do.

It goes so deep, the anger and unspoken stories.
To curse ‘the bosses’? That’s another story,
and along with all its contradictions.

Your father – ex-soldier and drunk,
at times a gardener at Windsor Castle –
who in hard times put his children in an orphanage.
But you survived in one way, though with
so much missing. ‘We manage.’

To gently run your finger along the edge
of the wood as you pass by.
Keep this memory close of dear virtue.

‘Say that to me quietly.’

You made a toy fort from scraps of wood,
painted it late on winter evenings
when the child was asleep.
The steady drone of bombers overhead.
The years pass. Beyond the plywood walls,
out in the open, grief woven in our hearts.
Martha Mavroidi sing, we may get through.

[*] From a speech by Galgacus, one of the Caledonian leaders, protesting at the Roman invasion of North Britain, as reported by Tacitus in Agricola, Book 1.