café – scarborough

we sat (we from the south)
almost knee to knee with them
in that cafe's crammed compartment
trying hard to stop our eyes from gaping
rudely at their faces
as they talked — (they strangers
made companions by her
aching standing waiting
for the overburdened service
and the empty place beside him
as he sat in loneliness)

his face was red — redder than health
though he claimed that even at his age
he daily lugged round weights of sixteen stone —
hers a pale unnatural glow — a day
to whom the sun had never been
more than a slow uneasy stain
in listless clouds
                                 and yet at ease
these two found words at once
to make a marriage of their lives
poured out obliviously
to our astounded ears
with such a resignation to the facts
with such acceptance of the griefs of life
(as if life were to all a livelong grief)
their suffered selves

                                      he'd existed
at the beck and call of boilers
till his health broke down
                                              he lived
alone — one morning woke (his back
as stiff as paling) nailed down with pain
for days he lay there no one hearing him
his privacy exposed to private terror
the room began to move in on him
he made his pact with death
a neighbour came — all facts
are equal — life is smooth with grief

she worked in hotels too — her father
told her
                look to your own affairs
others will look to theirs

                                              she recalled
one day when she was with him
her father being knocked down in the street
she went for water — she said she was refused
her father only said
                                   i'm not their
business — i'd do the same for them

another time she'd badly burned her hand
making an early morning cup of tea
for someone who had put the kettle
on forgetting to fill it
she'd been told off — injustice
hung in the air without a face
she'd raised no hand against it
made no cry — could no more stop it
than she could the tick of time

he'd read that morning in the paper
a woman killed herself
because she could not stand the pain
of his complaint — he knew
just how she'd felt and she
had lasted only half as long as him
and she'd had people round her
the first and only sign of pride

and so they talked their mood
in tune their voices tuneless
exchanging hurts like stamps
their collection endless — this swopping
we found unbearable yet still we sat
eating (and eating thoughts) with rigid eyes
compassionate abashed by so much pain
so tonelessly proclaimed
                                       one thought
(so afterwards we told each other
in the private street) politically
of empty words the tongues of government
chiming with lavish ignorance
in the cloistered air well masked
by comfort from such grey grief
the other how the dialoguing ear
of playwright would corrupt
the pathos of their haunted lives
to laughter (well—place a pause
or hold a loaded look too long
dehumanises — slaps misery down
with the crudest kind of joke)
to both of us the pain
yet dignity of that sad recital
was part of the world's wisdom
our innocence lay stunned in its wake

now removed by time and distance
still thundered by that grief
appalled what such life means
its ash in every heart i ask — what
hope can shift it in its weary drift
over the once green grass into people's eyes
what mammoth reassessment of the national role
can spur the phoenix skyward from this slag