Deryn Rees-Jones is a poet, editor and literary critic. Her selected poems, What It’s Like to Be Alive, was published in 2016 and was a PBS Special Commendation. Erato is published in June 2019 and her monograph, Paula Rego: The Art of Story, is also due from Thames & Hudson in the autumn. She has received numerous awards for her poems, and is the editor of the Pavilion Poetry list. She is Professor of Poetry at the University of Liverpool where she co-directs the University of Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing.
For a year or so I lived back at home, sleeping in the bedroom I used as a child. I was between jobs, between men. My father and I took to walking together in the evenings. The main objective for my father was to lower his blood sugar. For me it was a chance to repeat the walks we had had together when I was a child.
Sometimes we followed the road down to the traffic island. Sometimes we followed the old routes around the village down to the disused quarry. It was the last proper time we spent together.
The gangrene took the big toe first, and then began a slow shaving off of the extremities. It reminded me of martyrs burning at the stake as the flames licked round.
From your hospital bed you showed the surgeon how to construct a kind of palisade in which to keep the maggots contained as they fed on the gangrenous flesh. The room stank, and buzzed each day with the sounds of what the well-fed larvae had become.
My son dressed-up as a knight, and the house filled with bright hard LEGO pieces that never seemed to have a chance to be stuck together. On her 8th birthday my daughter wore a costume that transformed her into Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and decide that she wanted to stop playing the piano.
Some nights I would leave the sleeping children and walk the familiar walk, up to the traffic island and back, on my own.
When I was a child when we walked together I would hold tightly onto one finger. Sometimes now I held your hand. Now when you walked you did so with the aid of a special shoe.
No limp, more of a rolling seafarer’s stride. Now your hands
had become cold and hard with the illness and looked strangely white.
The soldiers announced that the enemy was fleeing
The boy said that his brother was finally sleeping
I realized that my father was going to be brave
The girl said that you had the gift of love
Each Sunday afternoon as a child I would lie on the felt, tatted rug in front of the hissing gas fire, translating sentence after sentence from Approaches to Latin. Sometimes I would imagine ripping pages from the text book, watching them blacken and flame.
The merchant said that he had lost lots of money in the street
The senator said that the slave had killed many citizens
The citizens heard that the enemy had fled
And now when I walk with my son and my daughter down the street, it is you, and their lost father, and the future and the notes of the piano not played and the length of a stride as the sun creates shadow,
and the small piece of LEGO in my pocket like the fragments of a dead language just translated that I’m holding onto, moving between you and I, one step and one step each of us, falling in and out of time.
First published in the Compass magazine