The Frame of Furnace Light

James Harpur

1

Coming Home

 

We thought the start seemed quite innocuous:

A phone call - just a routine operation;

A grumbling gall bladder, nothing to shock us.

 

But for him this was the start of a voyage

Into a pre-war life, a transformation

Begun by scalpel, needles, drips and drugs.

 

In time, bound to his bed, he became softer,

More serene, as the bluster leaked with each gasp

Extracted by the ventilator.

 

And as Odysseus' hound divined the beggar

We saw him suddenly step out from the past

And welcomed home this long-returning stranger:

 

The father who planted trees for football posts;

The wandering husband who'd left behind a ghost.

 

2

My Father's Flat

 

Tugging apart the curtains every day

He always saw, three stories up, a grand

Sweep of the Thames, the trees of Battersea

 

And, squatting there, the Japanese pagoda -

Inflaming, a parody of a bandstand,

Its four sides flaunting a golden Buddha.

 

It glowed like a lantern near the glitzy braid

Of Albert Bridge at night.

                                                                If he had crossed

The river he might have heard Renounce the world

 

Escape the gilded lips or seen Gautama lying

In mortal sleep, his face relaxed, his flesh released;

Even in death, teaching the art of dying.

 

At night, across the river two golden eyes burn

Into the heavy velvet of the curtain.

 

3

Two Big Games

 

My first soccer match was like a waking dream:

Floodlights as pure as moons arc-lit the grass,

The white lines and royal colours of the teams.

 

Tobacco smoke cloaked the roars and sucked-in hush

Like sea mist. My father, in the aftermath,

Cursed the crowd, bracing to save me from the crush.

 

Years later at our first big Rugby match

I was lost in impassioned ecstasy

Until the final whistle when I watched

 

His jittery legs heave up his wheezing frame;

I followed close as he picked his way

Down the stairs and pretended not to shield him

 

From the thickening wedge of bodies and to hide

The stone-faced feelings, jostling me inside.

 

4

Visiting

 

It could be the departure lounge at Athens:

Sound-proof glass, anxious Arabs, Greeks, swept marble.

Only the deep lifts hint at any menace.

 

Within the silent maze of corridors

My mind winds up as I close in on my goal

Dry-mouthed like Theseus sensing the Minotaur.

 

Room 303 - there he is! Half man, half bed,

Bellowing with laughter, his blubbery belly

Quivering above the sheets, his twitchy head

 

Ablaze with pre-op nerves and quickfire jokes,

A bull tycoon as helpless as a puppy

Eager for pats and reassuring strokes.

 

At length I leave. My unravelled mind is led

From trail to trail, but cannot keep the thread.

 

5

Last Visit

 

A Friday evening in the year of drought

The open window flicked with flying insects

The room was soft with balmy air and light.

 

My ailing father plumped in bed seemed carefree

As if a long-term deadline had been met.

Relaxed, we chatted, idly watched TV...

 

If I had known it was to be our last time

At what moment could I have departed

Ever adding seconds of his life to mine?

 

As it was I picked a random pause to go,

As usual kissed the scar on his bald head

And with a 'see you soon' stepped out into

 

The lamplight of the slow embalming summer

Which seemed as if it would last forever.

 

6

Last Rites

 

A coastguard pilot in his spotter plane

Took off towards the tight-lipped sky above

Bearing the urn of carbon flesh and bone.

 

Clouds softened and with a gradual smile the sun

Caressed the humming craft into a dove

Winging its shadow to the flecked horizon.

 

Unseen the dusty atoms drifted down

Acquiesced on the surface of the sea

Completing the final dissolution.

 

Now beady darting fish invade his grave

His tombstone is every ship that passes by

Nothing remains but litanies of wave on wave

 

Rushing over gravelly shores where they release

Their hushed prayers, rest in peace, in peace, in peace...