I came into the kitchen and the clock was ticking:
you had wound it again into the present tense,
into the fixity of each tooth-clicking second,
sweep of each minute, hour coiled upon hour,
so that we’d act in the moment and that instant
would be shuttered by a circle of numerals,
the matte face no place for pause or reflection;
and what we did now would be done for all time,
no regret, no hesitation, no winding it back,
no parallax error, and everything aligned
in the beat of a heart – like the sudden opening
of a bud beside the straits of Penang,
coinciding precisely with the arrival,
at last, of the slow train to Berrylands.
When he slipped climbing out of a poplar tree
and slid the length of the coarse rope,
he was twelve or thirteen or thereabouts,
and his mind was filled only with the pain
of the eight fingers whose flesh was ripped to the bone,
not the loss of their singular identifiers.
And he swore more violently than ever he had before
as he righted himself and stared at his hands,
where the skin was burned and lifted,
and he found he could no longer discern
what he thought of as himself, or touch
the world that surrounded him.
Nor could he be traced in the wasteland of brambles
where he lived for the following months,
while an assortment of ointments and balms was applied
and, from the sheen of his new skin,
there emerged the same set of fingerprints,
their unique pattern of arches, loops and whorls
legible now as he lifted them from the inkpad
and pressed them firmly to the paper.
The sahib is being shown around the tea garden,
face red as a pomegranate flower, brow sparkling
The women must smile, dazzle like their saris.
They raise their heads, straighten, lift the baskets,
fresh shoots of tea plant in flickering palmfuls,
second flush prayers – invocations that will startle
with visions of Chittagong, and longing ever after
for the contoured hills of Udalia gardens.
picnicking on his monsoon cape in the margin
of a field, the boys squabbling over his army
his wife stoically unwrapping warm tomato
sandwiches, he retreats to the boot of the car
to pour tea
from a thermos, and is momentarily disarmed
by the sound of women keening, by the scars
on their fingers.
He has contrived it so that everything
is at a jaunty angle; the brim
of your summer hat, your smile, the ship’s slim
rail which you are leaning back on
in your white raincoat – collar halfway
up – the matching clutch bag, even the spray
from the tipsy waves. He is pleased with the line
of your gaze – past his shoulder, towards Dieppe
perhaps – so that I can almost see him step
back, the silver Voigtlander pressed to his cheek,
adjusting the focus ring as he squints
through the viewfinder. The light glints
on the sea. He holds you both in this moment
for ever, one seen, the other not, like the weave
of sun and shadow in the folds of your sleeve.