Posted by: Kevan Manwaring | July 30, 2008

Bardic Poetry: In My Father’s Garden

This is for my Dad, who died suddenly earlier this year and whose 70th birthday we commemorated last Wednesday. K

In My Father’s Garden

 

I can still hear you,

digging away in the garden –

the hiss of the spade

as it slid into the soil,

and the silent strain

as the sod was hefted to one side,

or turned over and chopped up.

 

The bedroom window open

onto a summer of thirty year’s ago

when the heatwave would last for weeks –

tarmac soft underfoot,

the reek of creosote on endless fences.

The ice cream van’s crackly jingle

always on the air –

tempting us, tormenting us

until you buckled and treated us

to a block and some wafers.

Or there would lemon and barley water,

Corona bottles to collect

some coppers from.

 

You would sit,

T-shirt sleeves rolled up, or just in your shorts,

tatty sun hat on, battered boots off,

slowly basting on an orange plastic chair

in your sun trap by the old coal bunker.

Day off. You could hear the collective sigh of relief across the estate.

The hard-earned siesta accompanied by

the Roberts radio playing the chart countdown,

or there might be a match on the telly –

the never-ending roaring of soccer fans

like an angry sea crashing against a shore,

exhausting its strength.

 

The smell of Sunday dinner would

waft up, Mum always busy in the kitchen,

making her mountain ranges of Yorkshire Puddings,

meteor strikes of roast potatoes,

oil spills of gravy, rockeries of cakes.

Conjuring something out of nothing

to placate rumbling bellies.

 

You would fill the room

when you entered it.

A big man with a slow walk –

a John Wayne swagger –

folk would move out of the way

if they saw you shambling up the street,

broad shoulders filling the pavement.

You looked like you meant business

and it normally involved a pint or two,

a jar of smooth down the Horse,

or sinking one down the Loco.

 

At odd hours you would bring back

space capsules of curry,

still steaming on landing in their tin cartons,

a gladiatorial buckler of Italian bread,

a big slab of fruit ‘n’ nut,

and fall asleep in front of the big game.

You’d wake up if we turned it over,

say: ‘I was watching that.’

 

Your massive presence

filled the house,

a snoring giant,

mess everywhere,

hoarding of random junk,

shed full of shopping trolleys,

garden stacked with breeze-blocks,

railway sleepers, railtrack fencing,

buckets and bins, tyres and tools,

ladders and lethal looking implements,

as though planning an invasion,

or stocking up in case of one.

 

Someone forgot to tell you that war’s over.

 

Digging

with steady determination –

pacing yourself like a man

used to a day’s graft,

as you were –

you would shift tonnes.

Digging your trench and bank

vegetable patches, commando rose garden,

as though digging in for a scrap

still a signalman in the National Service,

cap rolled under shoulder strap,

short back and sides,

puttees around spit-and-polished boots.

 

You would build bean-poles out of scaffolding

until the garden resembled a wartime beach,

skeins of wire fencing, panels, planks –

a personal compound,

recreating the Civilian Internment Camp on Stanley Peninsular

you’d endured between the ages of three and six,

between your mother and hardship.

 

But you weren’t a mummy’s boy.

Life had toughened you up too much.

 

An alpha male,

always surrounded by your doting dog-pack,

drooling shadows you’d indulge with titbits,

perhaps remembering how, in the camps, you’d have to eat

stray ones to survive, the mangiest of mongrels,

back in those lean days under the Rising Sun.

 

Your step-brother, Joseph Read, got bayoneted

running for grub outside the compound –

for two eggs he nearly got beaten to death,

until his mother took the blows instead.

He survived,

but the wound got him in the end,

aged twenty six.

 

Your dad, Arthur Edward, lost his leg

because of the diseases which riddled the Jap camps,

the poor sanitation, the starvation diet.

And you nearly lost yours –

pincered by a rogue forklift, plagued by infection.

Terrified of doctors – of losing your leg –

you wanted to die with your boots on.

Perhaps you knew that house-call would be fatal.

When the doctor came, it was too little, too late.

 

Yet you laughed at the Reaper enough times –

a young man swimming Hong Kong Harbour,

with the shark-bites on his back to prove it
(showing us the mottled scars on your shoulders),

a middle-aged man, parachuting for fun,

until you broke an ankle.

 

‘Only the best, forget the rest,’

‘End of story,’

‘I won’t be here forever’,

you had your favourite sayings,

your favourite yarns, related in hysterics.

 

You would be deliberately dumb,

wilfully miss the point of

what we were trying to say or ask –

but you were good at making your own.

 

Yet you weren’t demanding.

 

A postcard, the odd phonecall,

Nothing more.

Independent, standing tall –

asking nothing of nobody.

Charles Bronson’s brother,

you could lay out a man

with a single punch.

Once thumped your sergeant

for some dark remark.

 

Your silk-thread began in Hong Kong,

ended up in Cotton.

Marooned on a Thirties’ housing estate,

carrying his whole past locked up inside of you.

Occasionally, you’d let a memory out,

but mostly tease us about

‘coming over on the banana boat’.

 

Yet at His Majesty’s Pleasure

you sailed the Southern Hemisphere

in not so slow boats,

moving between Naval Bases as a boy –

Manila, Singapore, KL, Auckland, Sydney, Suez –

finally making landfall on British Soil aged sixteen,

in a two-up, two-down on Delapre Street.

 

Emilia Ku, your Cantonese mum from Lima,

bringing a touch of the exotic

to the black-and-white movie of Fifties’ England,

with her furs and foreign tongues and

the first curry in Northampton.

 

Your first job was as a projectionist in the Tivoli,

beam illuminating the blue collar fug

of usherettes and cigarettes.

Then you started work at Howards –

a job you’d hold down for a quarter of a century,

becoming the captain of your gang.

 

But back then you were a dapper young Oriental Elvis,

with slicked DA and smart duds when

you met your future wife at the Salon,

Christmas Eve, 1960.

Married sweet sixteen Christine

three years later and, in ’65, ’67, ‘69

three children came along – two sons and a daughter –

chips off the old block. And grandchildren,

too, to carry on your name.

 

Dad. How we miss you.

You was always there for us

if not always all there –

away in some boozy cloud of

rugby, pet theories and randomness.

You never told us what to do,

or how to do it.

We had to figure it all out for ourselves.

Cut us plenty of slack,

for you wanted plenty yourself,

to go on your ‘walkabouts’,

up to Scotland or down to Malta.

You didn’t try to impress anyone,

neither leader or follower –

you ploughed your own furrow.

 

Stranded on the far side of the world,

no parents, grandparents or siblings left.

Drinking mates aplenty, when you wanted them –

but often you would stand alone,

adrift in a different sea.

 

In the Sixties,

you would’ve got on the boat to Australia for a tenner,

but Mum stood her ground,

and so you spent your days off

digging your way back to home.

 

For seven decades you walked this Earth

and now you are free of its gravity.

Ashes scattered over the Abbey

– where you loved to walk the dogs in the snow –

mortal remains

a frost in summer

on the blades of green.

 

Your mighty spirit finally

flying home.

 

Husband, father, friend –

you’ll always live in our hearts.

 

Goodnight, Dad.

 

with love,

Kevan Manwaring

 

 

In memory of Gerald George Manwaring, 1938-2008

on the occasion of his 70th birthday memorial celebration

23rd July 2008

 

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