Peter Burrows, This Curious Past

The Journey

Getting here you have to go back on yourself.
Each winding turn coasts old boundaries;
Jigsaws along the flat drained, reclaimed lands
Threading through past associations, sightlines:
Distant spires, the windmills, village stocks, all slow tractors
Lengthening the journey, pushing us against time.
The Norse-forged hamlets thin out. Detached dwellings;
Home produce left beside the honesty box,

Then one last clearance along the flat, sea-level stretch —
The village edge pulling up fast — then
The last turn, where, since childhood, the black-clothed
Edwardian mannequins stand, watchful,
Outside the antique shop, where past lives are
Dusted off. Resold. This curious past.

The Old Routes

I’m developing your eye for spotting
From afar those grown over embankments
That run into nowhere. Those landscaped cuttings
Strolled by horses and bikes on family Sundays,
Near restored station houses, now quaint dwellings
Or cafes. Their proud repainted signs conjuring up
The lost branch lines of your youth. Once explored

By that keen railway clerk, staff pass in hand;
Determined to free-ride every outstretched
Stretch of line. Steam, diesel, electric charged you
Along the routes that became your life’s frame.
Your work, and day trips transporting our lives
Across the network, until we branched off onto
Our own distant lines — still connected, yet,

Retired, alone — pass in hand, time now your own,
You travel further back to past routes. The preserve
Of a comforting ride; a relatable world,
Absorbing your presence. Request stops expressed by
To interests beyond us. The postbag dangles
Uncollected; swinging in the slipstream.
I could jump on a handcar, pushing up

And down the track, waving a red flag to catch you,
But, no, I fall back. Rolling to a halt.
As you continue unaware, always
Some place to go on the railways of your mind.
Timetables you knew by heart still running,
Almost on time. In the distance, small,
Vivid as a commemorative stamp:

The grey-white plume billows out as ghost trains
Fly across absent bridges. Glide through
Bricked up tunnels over forgotten crossings.
Fingers turn over tickets to beyond
Destinations stated. Trains, arrivals,
Departures. Momentum still travelling.
You lean out the window. The wind in your hair.

Pavement

Legs running, legs running to the far end
Of the street, echoing stampede of feet
After feet. Down again, up again, gather,
Disperse. My sister comes over first.
Others follow. A bike wheel skids up.
The rider eying me like a dull pet
Speeds off. One asks her my name. They drift off.
The pavement’s smooth warmth comforts my bare legs.
Planted within the benign reach of home
I return to scraping stones and squishing ants,
Occasionally, looking up at distant
Goings on — the shifting shapes and huddles

Rearranging and changing sides of the street.
Venturing like a coach up and down
The touchline at outcomes he cannot change,
Suddenly I’m pulled along with the crowd
Not knowing what we’re running to or from
Or why we’re now standing about. Other times,
The sun high and beating. Tops off. Water fights.
Droplets evaporate before our eyes
Off the gecko-hopping hot surface. The road
Sticky like black flapjack. A little plaything,
My brother pushes me fast on my new bike,
Too fast — I win the race — but fly over

Handlebars onto my face. Mouth, blood-filled.
Wailing. Days later my top teeth blacken,
And I’m taken to have them pulled out.
Returning with a nod, but back to the sidelines
Where I watch some girl from another street
Draw a crowd telling tales that are pored over,
Uncertainly. Where does my brother go
Beyond the streets we only pass hand in hand
Or by car? Is it the same vague places from where
Those older boys come to stand on the edge
Of our street unnerving him? As it grows
Dark our numbers drop with each call home.

I wonder if I put one foot in front
Of the other balancing on this kerb,
Following the edge out as it curves along
All the other streets, looping in and out
Could I — without falling off — travel the world,
Until I returned again to meet myself,
And this curious crowd centred around
This patch where we watch and play, play and learn?
And then I spot I’m not the smallest anymore.
Distracted — it flies by me: the dull scuffed
Wayward bounce of the half-flat ball wobbling
Down out of our street, and I chase after it.

Peter Burrows is a librarian in the Northwest of England. His poems have appeared most recently in The Interpreter’s House, The Cannon’s Mouth, South, Southlight, Marble Poetry, Word Life and Coast to Coast to Coast.

These poems appeared, respectively, in Dream Catcher, The North, and Ink Sweat & Tears.

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