When people disappear it is, at first, not as terrible as you thought
or maybe terrible itself is not as bad as you expected,
and maybe the small pains of living are a rehearsal
for the greater pains, you notice that with immense practice
you can observe yourself inhabiting only the befuddled parts of your body,
that maelstrom of phagocytes and distorted tissues.
Then one day you recall the poignancy of the silver goldfish,
lying twisted on the surface of the weed choked pond,
how you hid it, quickly, before she could say ‘what’s wrong?’
and her face, imploring, told you that she knew. Since she became a widow
she has specialised in the art of nostalgic conversation,
as if the magic of mentioning their shared space will make it real again.
Valerie came over on the Windrush
she’s been a widow for longer than a wife
in her backyard she keeps rabbits and plantains,
runner beans that flower red in July.
We are neighbours, everything we do touches her.
She ignores the sound of scratch guitars on summer afternoons,
but when I load the washing machine she’s on my case;
claims that the soap suds water infiltrates her drains.
She invites me round during the spin cycle
shows me evidence which only she can see.
I say ‘I’m sorry’, insincerely, what else is there to say.
Her son says she’s losing her memory
her mind’s like a cheese grater raddled with gaps,
she talks about Jamaica as if she still lives there
and her obsession with water can’t be shaken away.
I say ‘I’m sorry’ and she says ‘stop saying sorry woman
if you say it one more time I’ll bash you on the nose.’
I wash my clothes at night time now
I hope she has taken her hearing aid out
as the juddering reaches its peak.
I’m sorry I’ve been an absentee neighbour,
and that we’ve never had a real conversation;
stories of the Windrush and Jamaica
and her long dead husband.
All I represent to her is dirty water,
swirling and imaginary, frothing in the drain,
and my knee-jerk English ‘sorrys’
bland as beige curtains.
Valerie dresses scruffy now, not smart like she used to,
I shake her hand and hold it longer than necessary,
feel her warmth against my palm.
Pauline works in health care and lives in Bristol. Her work has been published in Domestic Cherry, South Bank poetry and other small press magazines.