Portrait of My Grandmother on the SS Lancastria
I lift you up between forefinger and thumb,
pat a felt cloche hat on your bobbed hair
so that from the side, I cannot see your face,
only the tip of a nose, which could be my father’s.
I make it 1928.
Let me place you down on a deck where the air is Atlantic salted
and I’ll tilt your chin to the sun so it warms your skin.
Let me circle seagulls above you –
and quickly pause the dark winged shadows cast over
hundreds of frantic men clinging to the upturned hull
as it disappears into bullet-splashing waters black with oil and loss
because this ship will sink, you know, in twelve years’ time, off the coast of St Nazaire
where the sea bed still nurses their gaping skulls.
But for now, I can give you gulls, a cloudless sky and you are young.
From somewhere inside, a bow-tied man flicks out his tailcoat and sits at a piano.
His fingers move across the keys like waves. Let this be the soundtrack.
And this is the moment you see the back of a man by the balustrade
smoking a cigarette, or maybe, in another version,
you are veiled by steam from the ship’s funnel
which slowly lifts and you meet eyes with him, now.
Flags flap and rattle on the rigging like applause.
He takes off his hat and says something,
but the ship’s horn blasts so loud you raise your hands to your ears and laugh
and this is how he’ll always think of you.
In your airless cabin tonight, Irene, perhaps you will not sleep.
I replay the voyage as sepia slideshow:
you, walking together under vaulted ceilings in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
where monks once prayed for the souls of sailors
and now, sitting side by side as he whispers into your ear
in the sweltering La Alameda Gardens.
Look, you are smiling and sun-hatted on a donkey
and here, watch, he places one foot on the edge of a deckchair where
you shield your eyes from the light – his forearm rests on one knee, sleeves rolled
and he bends towards you, slowly, to taste your lips.
He doesn’t tell you yet that you help him to forget
the stench of burning bodies on the Rue d’Abbeville.
All that rubble. All those dead men.
So, it is time to rest back on my fingertips and I’ll slide you on your heels
through the years, past weddings and boating lakes and wireless announcements,
swiftly past more war, with your armfuls of letters,
past the worry and rockpools and boys,
past ice cream parlours and bunting and bins put out on Thursdays,
past cataract operations and conservatories
and now, let me set you down in a garden.
In the pond are huge, mottled fish
and elm trees stretch out shadows on the lawn.
I unfold a blanket for your knees –
it is late and getting dark.
Grandpa is there in his outhouse.
Look at him, so carefully putting tiny ships into glass bottles.
Alix Scott-Martin has taught English at secondary level for 16 years. She is currently based in Rugby with her husband and two sons. Her work has been published by Ink Sweat & Tears, Lighthouse and Magma.