In Memoriam

A sideboard drawer, seldom opened,
Full of bits and pieces;
Things whose values have been written down
But not yet written off:
A purse with a broken zip;
A redundant shaving brush;
A shell, collected from the beach,
And then discarded amongst the jetsam
Of everyday life -
A lace-trimmed cuff.

I open the door and enter.
There she sits in her armchair
By the light of the window
And the lace curtain
That filters the monotony of a terraced street;
The lace-trimmed coverlet on the stand in the window
On which sits a large, glazed bowl -
The glaze cracked, the colours fading:
The prolific bizzy-lizzy that hugs the light
In the shaded room.

'Oh, it's you, John! Come in, come in!
Sit yourself down.'
She stirs in her armchair and
Holds me with her gaze
As I cross the carpet
To the visitor's chair.
'Are you keepin' well?'
She says with gusto the equal of any bar stander.

'Yes, Aunt Maggie.'
I laugh with a child's embarrassment.
'And how's your mother?'
'And your father?'
He's alright too' -
I giggle through the formalities.

'Is he still workin?'
There's a keenness to this question.
This is the one that counts.
She says it with a conviction
That animates the frail frame
Inside the flowered pinafore.
'Yes, Aunt Maggie, why shouldn't he be?'

She ignores my question.
We discuss the contingencies of life -
The weather, who's gone into hospital,
Who's come out.
The road accident on the corner
Of Canmore Street and Wilton Square.
'The driver was Maizie Wilson's nephew;
The one who never finished his time at Mackies.'

There is more to our well-rehearsed routine.
'So, how's school?'
I make my perfunctory reply.
'Just you make sure
You work hard at your schoolwork, John'
She cautions with a mock severity.

And then the next act:
Orange juice and oat cakes.
I know Maggie so well,
And yet I know so little.

She is weak and yet she is strong.
Of necessity she supports a world
From her armchair.

Ruth, her neighbour,
Brings her Sunday dinner
In a shallow bowl, covered with a plate
And wrapped in a tea towel.
Willie Mitchell brings her Sunday's service
On Monday by the miracle
Of the battery-powered tape recorder.
And there's Reverend Quinn (once a month)
Who prays with This Thy Servant;
And the milkman,
And the bread server.

And in the evening
We draw the curtain
To cosy in the green glow
And soft hiss
Of the gas mantle.

Great Aunt Maggie,
A woman in her eighties.
Sick since her youth
From her days on a Canadian farm.

She never married,
Though there had been 'a boy'.
But she turned him down.
'Sure, what good would I
Have been to him,'
She reasoned with the bitter
Logic of right doing.

Maggie sits in her armchair.
A picture of the Coronation Queen
Looks down from behind her head.

How you cheated death, Maggie,
But how life cheated you.