Two poems by Geoffrey Winch

 

Transports

The fourth lorry of the morning,
the same as the first   second   third –

empty and rattling rapidly
past our house

not troubling to avoid
the holes along our road.

On its blue livery we see again in
yellow the name of the fleet operator

though, now reduced to primal senses,
we see only red.

It’s a name we’ve come to dread –
of someone not known to us

though someone who has taken over
our personal spaces.

A name we’ll never warm to
knowing the fifth   sixth   seventh

eighth    and    ninth      will
rattle by at ten minute intervals

transporting nothing but emptiness
and pieces of our lives

to a destination not known to us
where they will fill their void
with the rubbish of our days.

 

Reframing Pictures

1) All churches Sunday-filled.
2) All ale glasses never filled.

Like him before me, I too work
six days a week in this city
wearing thin my city clothes,
so earn my nightly glass of ale
and the right to reframe those
pictures my father carried inside
his puritan’s head.

But Sundays now belong to me
and I too give them up to my creator
as I raise my glass and drink my ale –

my toast: keep Sundays holy
and give the city a day to live
peacefully in the world.

 

Geoffrey Winch has been widely published in the UK and USA and online. Recent poems have been published in Under the Radar; Agenda (supplement); Sarasvati, South; South Bank Poetry and Militant Thistles in the UK; and Bright Stars, Haibun Today and Atlas Poetica in the USA.  He has been a selections co-editor for South, and in 2011 he was ranked the UK’s best small press poet by Purple Patch magazine.  He has published two poetry pamphlets: The Morning Light of Dusk (Feather Books, 2004), and Turns Along the Garden Path (Poetry Monthly Press, 2007); and two full collections: Letting the Road-Dust Settle (Indigo Dreams, 2010) and Alchemy of Vision (Indigo Dreams, 2014).

Charlie – a poem by Conor Miggan

Charlie

It wasn’t Poetic or imaginative, and it didn’t rhyme.
Booze, birds and bravado. More descent than transcendence.
The patron saint of pretence; a gloriously crass wife beating
waste of time and space.
Public appearances that compare to a circus. Come gather round
and watch a man fall apart.
If we’re really lucky he might cry!
Bukowski did one thing with his life; he showed us the true nature of pretence.
Good for you, pal.

 

 

Conor  Miggan, originally from Dublin now lives in London working as a Nursery Teacher. His influences range from Kevin Smith, Shane Meadows and Quentin Tarantino to John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, T.S. Eliot and William Burroughs.

 

Peace in the Balkans – a poem by Joe Hackett

Joe Hackett

Peace in the Balkans

The nightingale sang through the dark.
Below us snoozed a meadow,
its petal eyelids still closed at dawn.

Then, a frog chorus, announcements
croaked from bubblegum throats
summoning us to swim in the clean river.

Later, we ate black cherries plump with juice,
paid pennies for taxi rides, laughed aloud
at the indecipherable alphabet,

watched swallowtails like splashes of sunlight,
donkeys pulling hay-carts and then at night
the fireflies flashed electric green signals,

like lighters sparking us up the hill to bed
where we remembered whiskers, scarves,
home-made brandy, whirling dances
and gold-toothed greetings
until we were sung to sleep once more.

 

‘Peace in the Balkans’ by Joe Hackett was commended in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (February 2016) judged by Roger Elkin

 

Three poems by Sanjeev Sethi

Sanjeev Sethi

Sacrament

Trying to reconcile with recondite
lines of your life results in asphyxiation.
You are oblivious of me, my bacha,
oblivious of my anxieties, our ado.

While we are numbed by this numinous play
it is you who is sniggering in stealth.
Perhaps you know the truths of your travel.
We must accept you as you are.
That is the ukase of grace.

In acceptance is our arrival
to embrace corrective anthems.
That is our need. You’re complete
with your cackle, my child.

*For a friend’s little girl,
rare in her quiet way.

Bloodline
(for my only niece)

Biennially, serotinal tidings
announce your arrival, and I begin
to spruce up my cache of chestnuts.
Even prayers need polishing.

Are we adults? How do we erase
the initial hesitancies in our chinfests?
Who will launder the limbus?
I’m always out of practice.
We’re not always at pink tea.
There is ease and exchange.
Care and some confusion.
Your posts on peregrinity please.
Elements in your energy
connect with my corners.
This knells on my nothingness
ensouling my omerta.

Persuasion

Panglossian in piety will assuage
by offering you its clutch of courage
when tentacles of truth plague.
That is a function of Faith.
Exegesis is inwards:
unsigned and autonomous.
If others believe you’re lulling yourself
into a fun house of delusion, so be it.

Sanjeev Sethi is the author of Suddenly For Someone, Nine Summers Later and This Summer and That Summer. At different phases of his career he has written for newspapers, magazines and journals. He has produced radio and television programmess. His poems have found homes in The London Magazine, The Fortnightly Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Off the Coast Literary Journal, 3 Quarks Daily, Lemon Hound, Poetry & Prose Daily – Paper. li, Poetry Australia, Indian Literature, Journal of the Poetry Society (India), The Indian P.E.N., Literature Alive, journal of the British Council (India), Delhi Gymkhana Club Ltd. Centenary Souvenir, The Statesman, The Hindu, and elsewhere. He lives in Mumbai, India.

Clay – a poem by Gareth Culshaw

Gareth Culshaw

Clay

When I worked with them we would
Erect post and rail or post and wire
Fences. Wooden tubes with a spiked end
Placed into regular intervals. Some soil
Was skin soft. Crumbling onto the spade’s
Plate with the ease of falling snow;
But on occasion our work would slow down.
The dreaded clay was a different substance;
Thin peelings would have to scraped
Small shreds lay in the bottom
And you would grab it with the shovollers
Sometimes clacking your fingers together.
There seemed to be an urgency as if
The clay itself might rebuild.
The colour was the same when he polished
His shoes. Sitting them on a newspaper
On top of the washer. Small circles every
Fortnight and an acorn colour
With the thick smell that lingered
Even during cooking. I only stayed the night
But when I got up, my boots were clay
And it stayed on my tips until I got home.

 

Gareth Culshaw is from North Wales. He writes poetry and has been published in various magazines. He is now venturing into other areas of writing although poetry will always be his main interest.

Review by Patrick Osada of Poems for a Liminal Age

Title: Poems for a Liminal Age (An anthology in support of Médecins Sans Frontières)
Editor: Mandy Pannett
Publisher: SPM Publications, 2015
Reviewer: Patrick. B. Osada
ISBN: 978-0-9927055-6-5
Pages: 246

pfala2016In recent times there has been a vogue for publishing anthologies in support of charities and good causes. Some of these have relied on the celebrity of certain contributors to attract submissions, promising the opportunity for the poems of “unknowns” to rub shoulders with contributions from the famous.
There are no poems from Laureates (past or present) in Poems for a Liminal Age, or any celebrity verse. What editor, Mandy Pannett, has skilfully assembled is a gathering of contemporary voices associated more with the “indie” poetry press and magazines than with the Costa or Forward prizes.

Many of the contributors, whilst not household names, will be well known to readers of magazines such as SOUTH …there is a preponderance of work from respected poets, editors and academics. Mandy says, in her introduction, that the book “offers a view of the way a certain group of people at a certain time in their history see their lives and the world they live in.”

Often their vision is gloomy, if not quite apocalyptic – the more pragmatic poems reflecting the unsettled time in which we live. There are poems on war, pestilence and flood; world issues like climate change, terrorism and the casualties of armed conflict. Yet there is a breadth of subject matter : besides topics like earth-quakes, tsunami and ebola, there are poems with a more personal focus exploring old age, declining health and relationships; whilst others define alteration to the natural world : the loss of habitat and changes to the countryside.

However, bleak as some of these poems may be, out of tragedy sometimes something positive can grow, as in this poem by Linus Lyszkowska:

…A 13-year-old boy in far-away England watching the stories unfold on television… vows that he, too, one day, must become a carer, a doctor, perhaps even a surgeon… (The Healers)

Poems for a Liminal Age is available from the SPM Publications Shop, all Amazon channels, and Barnes & Noble. £5 from each copy of the book sold goes to the charity.

This review was first published in South 53 2016.

Two poems by Abigail George

Abigail George

Jean Rhys

You need a ticket
to get to a destination
anywhere kind of place.
A place like Dominica, Dominica, Dominica.
Perhaps you will dance
like gangs of ballet,
find love there waiting
upon a throne of blue sky.
Bitter Karoo willagers patterned
with the bare milk
of frost, cattle, cheese,
fruit, grass. Perhaps
something good will
come out of it all. A hotline
in need of translation.
A dutiful symphony of Masai.
The end of climate change
as we know it just like the
history of the forced removals.

The same place, and tiredness
that I felt in mid-December,
and in January overwhelmed
me and I was left with questions.
I want to know everything,
what love is for, failure for quitters,
Rhys’s Dominica, Dominica, Dominica.
Yes, I give a damn about that.
What I will be left with in the end.
It feels as if I have lived for a thousand
years. I feel as if I have lived with
the tides. Particles of cities
and atoms. Those opened.
Those crushed. The wind is a humming
woman like Jean Rhys, coming stars,
the gentle touch of flora. There
is always a reward after a literary
fire. Literature born in that flood
flame, hook, truth, accident, age,

surface, bracket, dirt, current.
That is enough for me. It is alive.
Rhys’s Dominica, Dominica, Dominica.
Nobody told me that. I just knew it
by instinct. A dictionary is a place I lay
my head conversing with words like
jam or the regret of failure or
intense ritual. Rolling thunder
arousing lightning. Whispers, unhealthy traces
of them are manifested like a howl
by a dog, a twin, doppelganger, fluid.
Exhaling fish, the starkness
of a field. Grief’s gold, wakeful.
The flow, the ebb, the wave of the
glacial, tidal, cyclic, powerful
maiden. Darwin’s claw, and club.
Tangled reciprocity fishing for the locked away,
and delicate hoisted microscopic. The
eyes were the windows to her soul.

Mikale

He’s not here but he is here at the same time.
The smell of the raging fire in the bush
lingers. Its time-place. I am flying to the sun.
I want that spark. That flying impulse that I
know is for real. There is a beauty in
possessing that commodity. My education
has been hard. I have been troubled.
Troubled always comes with doubt and insecurity.
Once I was in love now I am in love with
everything around me. The environment shooting
up out of the ground like there was no tomorrow.
People sing of living for tomorrow. What is important?
Bright language. The exploration of a child’s
otherworldliness. Is any arrow tender?
Does it have an art form like a photograph?
A self-portrait of a history erased. To be fragile
the past has taught me is to be beautiful. Noble.
He is not here but at the same time he is.

 

Abigail George is a blogger on Goodreads, a short story writer, a feminist, and a full-time poet. She is hard at work on a young adult novel. She briefly studied speech and drama and film. She was the recipient of writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and the Eastern CapeProvincial Arts and Culture Council in East London, South Africa. Her literary work (fiction) was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She has been published widely in print and online in South Africa as well as abroad and has written for Modern Diplomacy and contributed to a symposium on Ovi Magazine: Finland’s English Online Magazine where also two of her eBooks (“All About My Mother” and “Brother Wolf and Sister Wren”) are available for free download.

Featured Poet – John Freeman – Six Poems

John Freeman

Sunset on the River
I didn’t think about the light until you
told me this path along the river Lea
was where you used to run with your friend Jan.
It was one of your centres of the world.
My hand closed over the camera I’d slipped
into my jacket and forgotten about,
and I took photographs of you, smiling,
with the houseboats and the lock behind you.
Then the evening sunlight slanted almost
horizontally across the land and lit
the bare slim trees, with their slanting branches
lifted like skinny arms of eager children
tinged green and golden with the rising sap,
and now spectacularly more golden.
I took one more picture of that light, rising
it would be as true to say as falling
on the trees and your hair and smiling face.
We walked on, keeping an eye on the time,
and the moment merged with the flow of moments,
until we saw the pictures properly,
days later, on the screen. I was surprised
how well that golden light had been recorded,
which at the time I didn’t dare expect.
In fact it looked an even deeper colour,
and for a moment I thought it was better
than being there had been, until I realised
that good as they are, and I’m glad I took them,
the pictures lack not only the fresh air,
the context of the walk, the sense of presence,
but the brightness of the living daylight,
which is both softer and more powerful.      

Seagulls at Play
The clifftop path takes a big step sideways
above a rocky cove beset by gulls.
It’s a breezy morning. We stand and watch
as the birds angle wings to rise and circle,
float on invisible currents up and down.
They seem to be doing it for the fun of it,
children running from swings to roundabouts,
but silently, without haste, gracefully,
like pensive adult skaters on a lake.
It becomes clear the summit of the cliff
must be the top of a steady flow of air
funnelled up and round by the rocky sides
until the wider space where we are standing
slackens the pressure as a loosened string
might let a bundle of sticks fall sideways.
I see one gull – I’m sure it’s the same one –
spiral to the spot where I’ve been standing,
position itself, lift its tail towards me,
showing the neat soles of two webbed feet
as if to be inspected, and glide off,
disappear from sight, and in a minute
come back and do it all again, climbing
unseen steps to slide down after pausing
at the top to ready itself and savour
the anticipation, then letting go.
I savour it too, those lifted tail feathers,
the trim pink feet lined up like tiny shoes.
And off, and down, and circling up and back.
All the other gulls are banking, wheeling,
their long and elegantly tapered wings
creating silent rhythms on the sky
above the sparkling sea, turquoise and purple.
As I watch them at eye-level sailing
so nonchalantly, without visible means,
for a moment I think I could step forward,
holding my arms out wide, and be like them.  

Gardener’s Friend
There’s a robin in our garden again,
hopping close whenever we’re out there working.
This one’s different from the one last year
which increasingly seemed to be trying
to say something urgent as if time was short,
but kept his dignity like a dying prince.
This year’s is more artlessly confiding,
like a child putting his hand into yours.
The feathers on his back are ruffled-looking.
He’s not so young that he doesn’t seem to ask
that aching question the other seemed to ask,
without being able to say what it is,
leaving us with the responsibility
of having a pain brought to us to heal,
just the confiding question and the ache.
All we can do, and we do it separately,
comparing notes afterwards, finding we’ve each
responded in the same way, is talk to him
as if he understood, reassuringly,
about what’s happening and what we’re doing.
He hopped up on a dead gooseberry bush
I was digging out and looked at me sideways.
Isn’t it a strange thing, I said to him,
pausing from pushing the garden fork in
and levering the stem out by the roots,
to be alive and conscious, and not know why?
He’d helped me see that we had that in common.

Churches in Toulouse
There is a height in stone that seems to rise
above not trouble so much as the meanness
of trouble, its accidental quality.
I thought nothing could transmute my grieving
so well as the lofty Romanesque arches
of the vast Basilica Saint Sernin,
especially the way the semi-circles
spanning the nave are echoed by the glimpsed
smaller arches along the corridored
clerestory, as the rising and falling
of voices must have echoed on all that
labyrinthine stone before winding at last
through the labyrinth of the ear and spirit,
or as water finds ways round and over rocks
in a broad stream in the Pyrenees. I thought
no space could rise above the illusion
of accident, disfiguring sorrow,
so well as those heights – plainchant, mountain, river,
Romanesque – but it’s neither the Garonne
I think of today, nor the Basilica;
it’s a museum that was once a convent
in the same city, its uncluttered ceiling
delicately crossed at the curved centre
by ribs of gold brought to a focus, crowned
by a single elegant knot like a thought,
a compassionate comprehensive thought
that resolves everything without reaching
for resolution, fusing height with depth,
acceptance altering what will not alter.    

The Real Thing
You’re perfectly fine now – well, like me, still
recovering from our strenuous week,
but fine compared with how you seemed to be
yesterday morning when I heard you call
help me, please, and I thought maybe a spider
needed removing, or something was stuck,
or would take two people to shift. From your voice
I couldn’t tell it was anything more,
and that you spoke undemonstratively
because you were on the point of passing out.
Which you did, eventually, after sighing,
groaning oh dear and looking strangely white,
by which time I was sitting next to you.
When you fainted finally I missed it,
hoping you were gathering your forces,
wondering whether you might be dying,
wishing I’d never not been nice to you.
Later the doctor, who was reassuring,
you told me, said it had been a true faint
and I wondered what a false faint might be,
but it was satisfying somehow to have
the authenticity of yours confirmed.
You said that when you opened your eyes at last
you were grateful to find me there with you,
which was, as I said then, and say again,
a feeling very much reciprocated.

A Good Home
She was smiling from the start, almost speechless,
gradually more able to respond
to our cheerfulness and our reminders.
Our acted-out brightness didn’t feel false,
just the appropriate way of being,
like a whole-body wave from side to side
painting the sky, so as to be seen
by someone on a hilltop opposite.
Transfixed by my part in the pantomime
a neat elderly gentleman, looking well,
stood in the spacious, bright refectory
a few feet away, framed by a high arch,
seeming, I thought, wistful, as if excluded,
and wanting to join in. I smiled at him,
not really surprised when his expression
didn’t change. That questioning blankness
must have become his permanent address.
We carried on warming our friend to life,
and her smiles crested as laughter. Friends’ names,
more than half forgotten, triumphed in her mouth.
A motherly nurse came and spoke with us.
Another approached the melancholy man,
asked him if he’d like to sit down and led him
patiently to a table behind me.
Meanwhile our conversation was ending.
It was time to go, but we left uplifted –
our friend was being so well looked after.
It’s true that she won’t stay that stimulated.
The most normally intelligent thing she said
was when we first arrived and asked her whether
we could sit with her a while. She laughed. ‘All day!’

John Freeman’s collections include White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems (Contraband Books),  A Suite for Summer (Worple Press), and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions). A new collection is due from Worple in the autumn of 2016.

 

A green activist considers the police state – a poem by Bruce Marsland

Bruce Marsland
A green activist considers the police state

There was a spy in my bed,
but I did not know.

I read about the malware on my laptop
logging every keystroke,
tracking every website,
scanning every download
for a sign of indiscretion.

I don’t write to my friends so much these days.

I heard about the wire on my mobile
filing names of callers,
noting times of chatter,
loading lists of contacts
into algorithms of subversion.

I don’t talk to my colleagues so much these days.

I overlooked
my ring-wearer, planted,
working me undercover, double identity,
licence to rape,
on her majesty’s bedroom service.

Our children, offspring of the secret state,
lost at least one parent to the shadows
when surveillance ended
and my phantom other half, faking like mad,
pulled out.

I don’t look at my family so much these days.

The law has fingered my collar and cuffs
and every inch of my anatomy
for the crime of having an opinion,
for the treachery of being free.

There’s a spy in my bed,

a spy in my head
I do not know.

 

‘A green activist considers the police state’ by Bruce Marsland won the first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (February 2016) judged by Roger Elkin.

Welcome to America – a short story by Nick Cooke

NICK COOKE

WELCOME TO AMERICA

A short story

Rolf had looked forward to meeting Cousin Ingrid. His mother had always said what a clever girl she was – never lower than fourth in her high school years, twice second, and once, in her penultimate year, top of the whole class. His mother had gained this information not directly from Cousin Ruth, who was in contact so seldom, but through Cousin Josef, who had some years earlier persuaded Cousin Ruth to send him copies of all her daughter’s report cards.

            As she walked towards him, Rolf thought how well Cousin Ingrid looked, with her short blond hair, and her figure so solid and sturdy. He put out his hand, and was surprised to find her squeezing him around the shoulders and slapping his back in much the way a man might do. She even wanted to carry his case, but that he could not allow. “An old-fashioned gentleman, huh?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and drawling her words a little. “What you got in there anyhow?” she asked, observing him strain with the weight of the case. “Look like you came for the whole semester, not just a weekend.”

“I always carry my encyclopaedia and guide books,” Rolf replied with a hint of pride. “In case I have difficulty sleeping.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, slowly, looking closely at his face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

            Cousin Ingrid had an automobile parked in the station forecourt. Rolf was very surprised that college students were permitted automobiles on the premises. How much freer things were here in the United States. And wilder too, at times. For instance, Rolf was much struck by the way Ingrid threw things. She began by throwing open the automobile door so hard the hinges buckled. Then she showed her almost unnatural strength by picking up his case with ease and tossing it onto the back seat. The instant they were both inside, she flung her seatbelt on, hurled the gearstick forward, and propelled them out into the traffic, seemingly indifferent to the blaring of horns. And threw so many questions at Rolf he felt his head spinning before they had even reached the campus. How was he finding Philly? How was Mom? Was the house as messy as ever? Wasn’t he hot wearing that necktie in this weather? Oh, by the way, she hoped he wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a friend of hers, just down the hall, a guy named Jim. And what was all this Cousin bullshit?

            On this last question she looked round at him for the first time and laughed, not the cruel kind of laugh he had heard so often, but a sort of friendly dog’s bark that was like a second question in itself. He straightened his tie and simply said he had been taught it was respectful to give family members their full title.

            “So what’s your Mom call you – ‘Son Rolf’?” said Ingrid, more sharply this time. But then she smiled, punched him lightly on the shoulder and added, “Anyway, you needn’t bother Cousining me, I won’t take it amiss, okay?” Rolf nodded and after a silence asked who Jim was.

            “Oh, Jim Dodd, he’s a friend, on the soccer team I run. Kind of what we call a jock. You know, the big sporty type. You like sport, Rolf?”

            Rolf stared despondently through the rather dirty windshield. He saw his mother, her grey hair tied in a neat bun, standing in the scullery, holding the huge steam iron that was her pride and joy and had been in the household since the days of her grandmother. Her smile, such a rare event in itself, was made almost ghostly by the gusts of steam, as she prepared to tackle Rolf’s school sports jerseys, which she would do with meticulous care, refusing the help of housemaids, as if polishing the armour of some heroic husband on the eve of battle. This picture then gave way to a montage of ball games, with people shouting at Rolf to catch it, or stop it, or hold it, and him invariably dropping it, or missing it or losing it; and his surname being mocked with bellowing sneers of frustration and contempt. The school was an enormous private institution, situated on the outskirts of a city many miles from his town, where no-one either knew or cared about his family’s local pre-eminence. Once, when he had been forced to play goalkeeper, someone had swung themselves up onto the crossbar above him, undone their flies and urinated on his head. The same boy later approached him with a grin, made as if to embrace him, and proceeded to sink his teeth into Rolf’s arm. The bite went right through his jersey, leaving teeth-marks in the skin for days.

            Soon after those marks finally faded he began refusing to join in the games of his classmates. One morning, he painted his whole face bright red, using a watercolour set he had been given for Christmas. Terrified it was scarlet fever, his father had rushed him to the doctor’s; and Rolf would never forget the silence as the doctor took a long look at his face, shook his head, took out some cotton wool, dampened it under the tap, and mopped the paint off in slow downward strokes.

            Ingrid was shaking his shoulder and gently repeating her question. By then they were turning through the campus gates. Rolf struggled to regain control, thinking that he should take his medication earlier than usual today.

            That evening, Ingrid, Rolf and Jim went to see a film at a cinema in downtown Ithaca. Rolf sat in the darkness listening to the others laughing – Ingrid more loudly and freely even than the rest. Sometimes Jim put his arm round her shoulder and whispered in her ear. At one point, when he seemed to be attempting to tickle her, she caused several people to look round in amusement by shrieking with laughter, upsetting at least two boxes of popcorn, and giving him a firm slap on the thigh. Rolf wondered how an audience in his own country would react to people shouting out and slapping each other. He pictured his mother whirling round with a huge Shhh! and a glare of disapproval. And how would Ingrid and Jim have responded to that? In this sort of mood he could see them opening their popcorn boxes and pouring the whole lot over her furious face.

            When Cousin Ingrid had introduced them that evening, Jim had been very friendly to Rolf. “Hey Rolf, how ya doing, enjoying the States?” he had said, flashing his huge smile, almost crushing Rolf’s hand in his. Then, before Rolf could reply, he had chased Ingrid down the residence corridor, picked her up in one arm and held her over his shoulder like a trophy while she drummed her fists into his back. During the movie, Rolf had thought of a list of questions to ask Jim when they got back to his room, about his studies and family, but he did not get the chance. Jim had no sooner turned the key in the lock of his door than he was saying goodnight. “Listen,” he whispered. “Don’t bother with the couch, take my bed – the linen’s clean on today. See you in the morning, okay?” And Rolf had lain down on the tiny bed, staring at the ceiling, loosening his tie. For many minutes he thought that Jim might be joking, and would suddenly burst in, having tiptoed back down the hall and waited his moment by the door. An hour passed, two hours, and eventually Rolf, his headache gradually clearing, fell asleep, though he did not dare remove his clothes. He had been watching the shadows on the walls and wondering what Cousin Ruth would make of these sleeping arrangements. To say nothing of his mother. He must take care not to mention this part of his visit when recounting it to family members.

            There were no curtains on Jim’s windows and Rolf woke at dawn. In the distance he imagined he heard someone moaning. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, got up and walked to the window. The room looked onto a playing field. He heard the moaning again, low but unmistakeable, like a distant engine. He was not a complete innocent, he knew what such things meant. He had read about them, illicitly, and gaining no pleasure from the transgression, in the wrong sorts of magazine, the ones he often found discarded at train stations and in public toilets. Now, torn between listening to the moans and trying to blot them out by humming, he wondered, not for the first time, if this was how he himself had been produced. From some casual union of young people caught up in all the laughing and shouting. In the milieu of his parents, casual union of any kind seemed unlikely, but he had once overheard his parents – or perhaps he should say Mathilde and Otto – mentioning that he had been born in the depths of the countryside, a wild and permissive place, inhabited by very low people. He had visions of a nocturnal festival deep in the valleys, a whole community gathered round a huge bonfire, in commemoration of some seasonal milestone. He saw torchlight, and dancing, and sturdy young milkmaids dragging drunken stable lads towards the hayloft…

And then he saw the days after he failed his final exams, the period before the cruel looks and the barbed remarks, when his parents, especially Mathilde, were simply stunned –too stunned, it seemed, to react. Their only son, not merely exposed as an inadequate, but the sole pupil in his class to be thus adjudged! Some days later he was sent to the doctor, the same elderly gentleman with horn-rimmed spectacles and silver hair, who had wiped the paint from his face all those years before, and who now referred him to a specialist. The specialist ran some tests and diagnosed his condition as “a progressively worsening displacement from reality and a failure to cope with the demands of normal social interaction”. As he withdrew into himself and his room, Matilde took every opportunity to remind him that had it not been for his father’s influence in the town, the doctor would have entered the diagnosis on his medical records, with incalculable consequences for his future. Meanwhile she gave it out around the town that her son was deep in study for a forthcoming engineering apprenticeship that his father had arranged in the United States, where he would be staying with her emigrée cousin, the well-known actress and director, Ruth Markham.

            One night, hearing Otto’s voice in the hall below, Rolf had emerged from his room, gone downstairs and announced that he wished to contact the agency and begin a search for his real parents. Otto, who had just returned from work and still had his favourite velvet-lapelled overcoat over his left elbow, lifted his free hand and dealt Rolf a ferocious smack across the face. Rolf found himself lying face down on the hall floor. As he stared at its chequered marble tiles, his cheek smarting, his mind burning, he wished he had never been born, either in the countryside or here; and when Matilde helped him to his feet, he started screaming at the top of his voice and kicked her in the shins. She gave a yelp of shock, and jumped out of range, before Otto, flinging the overcoat aside, called Rolf a fucking crazy little bastard and punched him hard in the ribs. This time no-one helped him up, so he lay there until the doctor appeared and gave him a sedative.

            Ever since then, he has been on his best behaviour. SLQ