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A father’s no shield
for his child.
Robert Lowell, Fall 1961

It’s spring of 1962, a Saturday,
I’m with my father on an empty-at-the-weekend train, and full of joy.
We’re on our way to buy a bicycle, my first.

We come back on the same suburban train.
(I know; I checked the number; I am in that phase.)
The bike I chose is blue, and in the guard’s van.
I suggest we get off one stop earlier than planned
so I can try it on the road.
My father is unsure, and then consents.

The hill from Beckenham to Shortlands,
in the valley of the Ravensbourne, is steep.
We’re at the top. He holds the bike.
I mount, and wobble, then shoot off and leave him standing.

At the bottom, I turn round
and watch him running down the hill
and when he’s close enough I see
fear clearing from his eyes.
But I’m all right

and 42 years pass

and we are in a shop in Bedford, buying him a bicycle.
He’s 80, and the old one is beyond repair.
He mounts outside the shop,
adjusts the saddle height,
then says he’ll ride the five miles home
and will I take the car? He’ll see me there.

I follow at a distance, not to seem concerned.
I stop in driveways, watch him wobble on the new machine,
then overtake by half a mile, and stop and wait again. Each time
fear has its hand around my heart.
These roads which once were country now are chock-a-block with metal
and the bends are blind. Each time

he reappears. He is all right.

Great chapters of our lives have opened, closed.
A zero interim. Where but from the man ahead
have I inherited
this instinct of protectiveness for him?

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author