Lately, times and dates become smudged.
I only know it was a cold October.
My mother was taking a break away from home.
She meandered along the embankment, noting
how her beloved London had changed.
Wrapped in a warm coat, snuggled into gloves and scarf,
she shivered as the chill
She’d looked forward to this ambling trip down memory lane, but now
she missed the warm house, safe from wintry elements,
where a friend from agile dancing days awaited her return.
She envisaged strong coffee, cosy conversation,
intelligent debate, heartfelt agreements.
Later would come supper, wine, a welcoming bed.
Wine, with its layers of taste
Wine, gulped down, leaving a wide smile, and no visible stain.
She stepped up her pace at the place
where the ground beyond the wall on her left
began to dip.
Glancing that way, she spotted the shock
of cardboard city; the place that street-sleepers might wryly call
their safety zone, where they laughed and cried and fought,
where few found love and many raged in anger and frustration,
where most drank themselves into a stupor to escape racking pain and loneliness,
where flattened boxes raised chilled, aching bodies from
That night she wrote it in a poem – her hopeless, hollow, agonised desire
to make it right;
to take it all away,
to save, to save… to wash and shave them, change their clothes,
dress their sores, pour a healing salve onto their brains,
to feed and shelter them;
to make them well again.
She described her sense of helplessness for these broken lives.
She said it felt like a punch
between the eyes. Her shoulders curled in, her legs
threatened to buckle.
“Dear God,” she wrote,
When she came home, she showed me the poem.
Though something in me preened in the reflected glory of her elite literacy,
I cried for the plight of the homeless, and for an elusive secret
tucked between the lines;
a message I couldn’t quite read.
Still weeping, I typed her words onto a clean sheet of paper.
This I gave to her, together with the original.
I kept no copy for myself.
Maybe it was down to the drink, but
for whatever reason, the poem was spirited away,
probably thrown out by mistake –
along with other significant documents.
My mother’s words, gone forever.
Those precious words shared the secret her misplaced shame
could never speak, yet they remained unheard.
Years later, a mystery illness revealed the weakness hidden in her genes.
My father pulled out green and amber bottles
concealed beneath the bed, behind her clothes,
inside cupboards and closets.
I smelled the amber liquid as it glugged into the sink,
a picture forming in my mind –
I’m twelve years old, delving through a pile of rags,
discovering empties underneath,
my mother’s brief irritation, her evasion, when I questioned her,
and how, when she found an excuse,
I couldn’t dispel the feeling of unease and confusion.
Did I never guess, or did I refuse to know?
Twenty years on, the clue was there, in the last lines of her poem,
the only lines which have not been – and will never be – erased from my mind:
Dear God, dear God,
there but for thy grace,
This poem – like many others I have written – honours my mother, who had more positive qualities than any other woman I have ever known. She was plagued for many years by alcoholism, but her love and strength were such that her family had no idea until she started to experience frightening catatonic spells, and was admitted to hospital. Addiction is a tragic disease that often runs in families. She warned me against it, and I took heed. I know I carry the disease, and I owe it to her that I have not allowed myself to become lost in it.
Were she alive today, she would be 102 years old on 14th February.
©Jane Paterson Basil