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Up on the stretch of chalk down which remains
after the houses stop
before the houses start again
a man is scattering the ashes of his father.

In the distance is himself.
His hand is in his father’s hand.
He likes this upland detour home from evening church:
the up, along and down of it;
the map the harbour, city, island
make for him below. On summer Sunday evenings such as this
the lark song
and the bonfire smoke which drifts from gardens
bring to him the meaning of romance
before he knows the word.

The man is throwing up his father’s ashes
so they catch what little wind there is.
They make brief curtains in the air
and fall to earth to dust the grass
and merge into the colour of the chalk.
Mostly wood and bones, he thinks.
The soft parts will have boiled and rarefied.

The softest part of all — the soul —
has been in heaven since his father died.
His father in the distance is explaining this
and trying to alleviate the only sadness he so far has known:
the possibility that he may lose these Sunday evenings on the down,
the two of them alone; that everything —
the harbour, city, island
lark song
smell of bonfire smoke — will pass away.
‘All this will pass away,’ his father says
and waves his other hand across the scene,
‘but we, the just who live by faith, we will remain.’

He’d rather not consider this too deeply
so his hand renews its grip inside his father’s hand
to still the nag of reason he has heard.

The man upends the plastic urn
and puts it on the ground to clap his hands
so that his father’s last remains may join the earth.
He looks into the distance for his father and himself.
They’ve disappeared.
They must be walking down the avenue of bungalows.
They must be nearly home.
He turns and takes in the familiar view.
New motorway. New high-rise.
But the sunlight on the sea
the lark song
smell of bonfire smoke:
these have not passed away.
They’ve lasted long enough to force
the tears of one for whom the present is
for one for whom the present never was.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author