(Malton, North Yorkshire).
The drum calls, the lines form.
We must march from here, across
mud and fields, back to the coast,
With every tramp of boot, scrape of shield,
we will remember Derventio,
this place of oaks that became our home.
We hear its voices call us:
“How can you leave us – the wives
you married in all but law, your Parisi sons,
the villas and roads you built?”
“How dare you leave us – the chiefs
you courted, the placemen you installed,
the craftsmen you honoured and paid?”
“And what of us: the traders,
cooks, pimps and potters,
all looking to you for a living?”
Yes, we hear your voices, knew you,
loved you. We will remember you,
but we have no choice; the trumpet blares,
the weary lines straggle.
As the gates open, faces plead
in the light of dying fires. We pray the gods
grant we meet again, but the Empire crumbles,
and Rome is a lifetime away …
beyond the monuments to village dead,
graves huddle, like refuse on a building site.
Scattered stone and sand betray haste.
Most are unmarked. No wooden cross
remembers these bundles, washed
onto the beach below. Labels bleed
in Greek heat, identities found
in sodden paper, a locket, engraved watch;
but only youth names this small shape.
‘Unknown toddler ’ a cardboard sign records.
Somewhere in Syria or Iraq
parents risked sea and sinking boat,
sold their saucepans and books, paid crooks
and corrupt officials, to give their little one
a better life. They too must lie here,
or surely they would have claimed their child?
My mother said
I never should play with the gypsies
in the wood. If I did, she would say
naughty, naughty girl to disobey.
It was a favourite rhyme,
played pat-a-cake, but it taught me well.
I passed exams, achieved, wore
my academic gown, and never asked
what lay among those forbidden woods.
When I was a woman I did try
to explore, once. I hid between
Walt Disney pines, where twigs
reached out like knuckled fingers
and Hansel and Gretel ran for their lives.
I discovered firelight and music,
and travellers offering wine.
Ah – but my mother had said
and I always was a dutiful girl.
Sadly I turned back down the path
and pressed my hands against my ears.
One wild moonlit night, though,
when owls are flapping in my brain
more than usual, I shall try again.
I shall tip toe out of my house,
follow the fiddle and the dancing pipe.
Deep, deep I shall run,
down into the darkling woods,
and some of the things my mother said
I never, never should …
“Photography? ” the neighbours sniffed.
“It ’ll pass. And her a widow too
talking to costers and fishmongers
like they were friends, lugging
all that gear, and her past her prime … ”
I set my mouth and persevered,
teaching myself to record a city,
truth as the lens saw it –
all those uncertain young men
in ill-fitting coats, ready to fight
(but only till Christmas).
For me they posed beside waiting trains,
framing a last smile for wives
up from the country in Sunday best.
My daughter fixed their images
to sell on our stall. ‘Mrs Albert Broom ’
I titled myself, needing a respectable name.
My photocards still surprise
in tissued albums,
mementoes of a million men.
2. The Bermondsey Boys
photograph, Christina Broom, The Bermondsey B’hoys
We smile, reclining, hats askew
or forgotten, confident, a little louche,
proud of being Grenadiers.
You might say we were scruffy.
She didn’t care. Wanted us
‘as we were ’ – a true record she said,
before we left for the Front.
She must have known
war would wipe the smile off our faces.