The Frame of Furnace Light

by James Harpur

1
Coming Home

We thought the start seemed quite innocuous:
A phone call – just a routine operation;
A grumbling gall bladder, nothing to shock us.
 
But for him this was the start of a voyage
Into a pre-war life, a transformation
Begun by scalpel, needles, drips and drugs.
 
In time, bound to his bed, he became softer,
More serene, as the bluster leaked with each gasp
Extracted by the ventilator.
 
And as Odysseus’ hound divined the beggar
We saw him suddenly step out from the past
And welcomed home this long-returning stranger:
 
The father who planted trees for football posts;
The wandering husband who’d left behind a ghost.
 
2
My Father’s Flat
 
Tugging apart the curtains every day
He always saw, three stories up, a grand
Sweep of the Thames, the trees of Battersea
 
And, squatting there, the Japanese pagoda –
Inflaming, a parody of a bandstand,
Its four sides flaunting a golden Buddha.
 
It glowed like a lantern near the glitzy braid
Of Albert Bridge at night.
                                       If he had crossed
The river he might have heard Renounce the world
 
Escape the gilded lips or seen Gautama lying
In mortal sleep, his face relaxed, his flesh released;
Even in death, teaching the art of dying.
 
At night, across the river two golden eyes burn
Into the heavy velvet of the curtain.
 
3
Two Big Games
 
My first soccer match was like a waking dream:
Floodlights as pure as moons arc-lit the grass,
The white lines and royal colours of the teams.
 
Tobacco smoke cloaked the roars and sucked-in hush
Like sea mist. My father, in the aftermath,
Cursed the crowd, bracing to save me from the crush.
 
Years later at our first big rugby match
I was lost in impassioned ecstasy
Until the final whistle when I watched
 
His jittery legs heave up his wheezing frame;
I followed close as he picked his way
Down the stairs and pretended not to shield him
 
From the thickening wedge of bodies and to hide
The stone-faced feelings, jostling me inside.
 
4
Visiting
 
It could be the departure lounge at Athens:
Sound-proof glass, anxious Arabs, Greeks, swept marble.
Only the deep lifts hint at any menace.
 
Within the silent maze of corridors
My mind winds up as I close in on my goal
Dry-mouthed like Theseus sensing the Minotaur.
 
Room 303 – there he is! Half man, half bed,
Bellowing with laughter, his blubbery belly
Quivering above the sheets, his twitchy head
 
Ablaze with pre-op nerves and quickfire jokes,
A bull tycoon as helpless as a puppy
Eager for pats and reassuring strokes.
 
At length I leave. My unravelled mind is led
From trail to trail, but cannot keep the thread.
 
5
Last Visit
 
A Friday evening in the year of drought
The open window flicked with flying insects
The room was soft with balmy air and light.
 
My ailing father plumped in bed seemed carefree
As if a long-term deadline had been met.
Relaxed, we chatted, idly watched TV…
 
If I had known it was to be our last time
At what moment could I have departed
Ever adding seconds of his life to mine?
 
As it was I picked a random pause to go,
As usual kissed the scar on his bald head
And with a ‘see you soon’ stepped out into
 
The lamplight of the slow embalming summer
Which seemed as if it would last forever.
 
6
Last Rites
 
A coastguard pilot in his spotter plane
Took off towards the tight-lipped sky above
Bearing the urn of carbon flesh and bone.
 
Clouds softened and with a gradual smile the sun
Caressed the humming craft into a dove
Winging its shadow to the flecked horizon.
 
Unseen the dusty atoms drifted down
Acquiesced on the surface of the sea
Completing the final dissolution.
 
Now beady darting fish invade his grave
His tombstone is every ship that passes by
Nothing remains but litanies of wave on wave
 
Rushing over gravelly shores where they release
Their hushed prayers, rest in peace, in peace, in peace…