They wanted the stars for her –
an only one, pretty as stained glass.
She had a poor man’s livelihood spent on her:
singing masters, fine silks to wear, a tame bear
– her father even taught her how to read.
We thought her spoilt, but she charmed us into care.
The grooms adored her, and that fat old Nurse
stayed instead of seeking better-paid positions.
And what did the silly girl do? Fall in love –
with a Montague. Everyone below stairs knew it;
we gossiped over supper, feared trouble would come of it,
but that fool of a nurse must have her Romance,
dream the immovable could be moved. I warned her myself.
“The boy’s a threat,” I said, “To himself, as well as Juliet,
climbing the cedar to turn her head, playing stupid songs
where our Master can hear. He’ll get a sword in his gut.
For his sake as well as ours send him packing.”
But Nurse wouldn’t listen. “Love will find a way,”
she canted. “No, it won’t,” I predicted –
“not now, when hate corrodes like poison.”
And poison everything it did, including our sweet
Juliet. The house mourns; silence shrouds our meals.
I cook little now, and each morning, Nurse runs
to the bedchamber, and finds her baby gone.
My jacket chafed, the collar too tight,
buttons pulling across my chest.
We stood stiffly, not yet parted,
but no longer together. Better to leave now
than wait, with Millie trying to be brave
and not daring to speak, and her mother
in her dourest chapel-faced black,
as if she were burying me already.
The photographer helped fill the space
between farewell and whistle.
We stood in line beside a stranger and his family.
It was cheaper to share. I never saw him again.
Maybe a bookcase in some northern town
shares us still, our last picture before
the whistle blew.
When do we leave –
Cancel the milk, stop the papers?
There are whispers on the train
And letters go astray.
We are not wanted here.
Once, we were decent folk,
Growing a little stout,
Respecting the law and the neighbours.
We cast our vote, when we remembered,
And forgot it decently afterwards.
Now waiters refuse to serve us
And the school has no places.
The man on the street shouts hate
Not news, and our parties are invaded
By black-shirted men.
Perhaps we should pack our cases.
But where should we go? And how?
The wind blows cold across the station.
Who would want us, anyway –
Decent folk, growing a little stout?
Twenty feet of track cut a muddy lawn.
Tools lie, as if discarded in haste: a pick,
basket of stones, sledgehammer and spike.
The rails lead nowhere, and come from nowhere,
though a sign points to Muara from Pakan Baru.
The day melts to a weeping horizon.
Bamboo shivers in an English wind.
Native trees struggle in this new,
brave Arboretum, part refuse tip, part quarry.
The track recalls the Sumatran Railway,
completed 15th August, 1945.
I cannot absorb the numbers: Dutch, English
and Australian: perhaps seven hundred dead;
press-ganged Romushas: unknown;
more than ten thousand altogether.
They hammered the last nail into the last sleeper
the day the war ended.
The cuttings are reclaimed by root and branch.
Kilometres of rail rust in stagnant water.
Around Pakan Baru children play
on the bones of locomotives and trucks.
In the raw morning air, I walk
aside from friends and the noise of distant cars,
to lay track through mountain and swamp,
with those few tools, hacking at rock,
standing in leech infested bog …
and all to build a railway that was never used,
except to repatriate the survivors.