What did he see in the war, my father?
All I have are the photos – small sharp stills
from a 1940s film: Trevor Howard,
angular, tanned, glancing up handsome
from the shade of a cocked serge cap.
His hands, fine and strong, held compasses, maps;
knew the levers of lorries and the shafts of guns.
The same hands that cupped my head
like an egg when I tripped and fell,
could tell the cool weight of a grenade, the exact bite
of a Stanley knife. Had laid out the dead.
I could well believe he’d been a soldier,
the hardness of his body showed it.
And the way he held the bowl of his pipe,
firmly, with a kind of sure commitment:
this is what I am, these are my tools,
my equipment. There are tasks to be done.
It was there in the weave and cut of his clothes:
things well made, stout for their purpose –
gaberdine and wool, best leather, double-stitched,
double-knotted, built for wear and weather.
What could he do in peacetime
that would compare with those days
deliberate as a bird’s of animal’s days
when there’s food to be found, nests to be made?
The medals meant nothing:
trinkets, he called them. But the men –
ordinary, afraid and brave,
welded to him in the long slow furnace
of shared smokes in canvassed trucks,
nights under desert skies – it was they
who brought up the light in him,
repeating their lines forty years on.
What of the rest could he find to say
to a young girl who knew only
the safe house of his steady arms,
the gentleness of his delphinium eyes;
and the cheerfulness worn casually,
daily, like collar and tie.
by Anna Wigley