Forward and Aft

by Ailsa McDougall

From the bright chip shop,
Chafing with calories and coarse money,
The canal is a Victorian drawing room.
There is dark water, carved from mahogany and seen through stained glass,
And every syrup ripple is a curl or bevel on the corner of a sideboard.
Each cleat or bollard doorhandles these sideboards, stopping

The desultory meandering of the narrowboats that weave though the thick syrup, cutting like plush and looping like Berber, forward and aft, forward and aft, making my drawing room’s carpet.

It is ten o’clock:
Hanging in ev’ry cowslip’s ear
Is a piece of dew, an amorphous filament, strung out like the lady of the manor’s pearls.
These hang from willows; stooping to the surface,
Piercing the cashmere water with washing-line arms,
Weighed down with jewels: shrouding,
Like sheer curtains on glassy bay windows.
There, smug cherubs duck,
Beguiled from the architraves, sought out –

Ephemeral through their heavy stone, with bows and smiles and curls: neoclassical, gilding the water, forward and aft, forward and aft.

Languid narrowboats
Cut and lilt silently, half still;
Their gypsy tongues slide through the carpet;
Myriads of red cabbage roses and painted castles.
These boats are slower than goods boats of old.
The canal calmly takes it all in:
Having lullabyed England’s birth and praised its growth, observing its garish lull is serene.
The threadbare waves trill,
Stuttering against hulls, each one

A hair in the gate of the cameras that first filmed them, played over and over in a silent cinema; each swan hymn a piano refrain, swaying forward and aft, forward and aft.

All is sepia:
My world’s fluorescence throbs against it,
Commercial and gauzy and hoarse with its lassitude: decrepit.
My chips are too greasy now and the lard is pooling.
I gaze out again:
The three-piece suite is a tercet of silhouettes,
Serendipitous on the grass-carpeted canal bank:
Armchair,
Armchair,
Chesterfield sofa,
Each one buttoned and upholstered in brown or spinach-colour:
A woman crouching and a pushchair poised, nebulous, twilit, are the armchairs,

And a toddler in gypsy silks, half covered by her own black locks with a handkerchief flapping and muddy fingers, is the upholstered Chesterfield, springing from mother to pushchair and back, tottering like the mallards when they land, forward and aft, forward and aft.

The sky is swirling and cracking and stirring;
Breaking into rectangular mahogany panels
Which compress into the panelled walls of my drawing room.
Even the outdoors is enclosed, and the wood pampers and tends to external sounds like infants,
Mollycoddling them so that I can hear nothing.
This walled sky-chamber is too indulgent. I hear
No bobbing or gurgling: only murmurs
Of this opulent canal’s life:
Its perforated celluloid banks and all the tides that have lapped them.
It is proud to be England’s drawing room.

The canal sways forward and aft, forward and aft, swelling with industrial revolution, sighing as it remembers the passing of each boat that carried the future home.

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