Evening Visitor

I met my father’s ghost last night
as I was putting tools back in the garden shed.
He came up through the orchard, hopeful and recognising.
I was in my overalls and so was he.

I said, ‘Dad, what are you doing here?
I thought you didn’t like France:
food too rich, wrong kind of Christianity.
The day we tipped your ashes on the Isle of Wight
I thought that’s where you’d stay.’

He said, ‘My boy, I’ve come to tell you
that I was mainly wrong and you were mainly right,
but only mainly. There is a heaven;
it’s like an autumn morning
when the gentle sun is warm on the face
but there’s a fresh wind too and leaves are twisting in the air
and both kinds of chestnut fall with the stronger gusts,
thumping the grass.’

‘What do you do all day?’

‘We walk about. Sometimes we exchange a word.
Mostly we just smile and wave at a distance,
knowing how agreeable everything is.
John, I’m sorry that I spent so much of my life in fear
when there was nothing to be afraid of.
And because you loved me and I was your dad
I made you fearful too. Now I discover
that there’s all sorts over there:
Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews… every religion,
plus people like you, seekers after truth
not expecting a second innings
and pleasantly surprised to get one.

I want to confess something.
I married your mother so I could have sex without shame
and the price was: belief.
Then the children came, and she and I were happy for a while,
and we were sure we’d found the only truth.
But you grew up and left us, and we couldn’t understand
how most of you could be so casual
about your everlasting souls.

I wish I’d known.’

I said, ‘Dad, I grew up a long time ago.
I stopped being afraid when I was 12.
I remember the occasion. We were in church, the vicar going on as usual,
and suddenly, like a gift, I knew that he and mum and you and I
were tiny, in space and time. That what I was hearing was one voice
and that the world contained a million voices, and always had.
I saw the universe turned inside out.
What I’d thought was everything was only… a thing.
Of course, I didn’t own up to such a revelation at the time.
It would have caused unpleasantness. But later
I couldn’t help it when the great gulf opened out between us.
I told myself it was your problem, not mine.

And I remember another day, when I was 25,
when I kissed you. Not just hugged you in a manly sort of way;
I kissed you. You jumped back about three feet
but you were glad. And after that we always kissed,
like Italian men, and we were easy.

I have to thank you for loving poetry
and for having books of poetry at home for me to wander in,
when you weren’t literary. Why shouldn’t a physicist
quote Matthew Arnold by the yard?
And remember when I took you into hospital
not long before the end? You had two books:
the Bible and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
I said it looked to me as if you were hedging your bets.
We read the whole of the Rubaiyat aloud to each other in the ward.
I don’t suppose St George’s, Tooting had ever heard anything like it.

And I’ve already written (but I’ll say it again)
about the hours and hours you gave me, playing cricket
when I was a boy. They secured our love,
which no amount of strife over religion could dislodge.
I loved you, dad, and because I loved you and you knew it
I haven’t been regretful since you’ve gone,
but I just miss you. There.
Why are you wearing overalls? Do you get issued with them?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I wondered if you needed a hand.
You always used to help me when you were at home.’

I said, ‘You’re a bit late. I’ve more or less finished for today,
but thanks anyway. I’ll be in the garden
these next few afternoons if the weather holds.
Come and see me when you’re free.’ He smiled and nodded,
hesitated, as if he still had more to say,
as if our talk had partly, not completely, satisfied
the longing in him; then he went his way
down through the wood just as the sun
had touched the treetops on the valley’s other side.

Listen to this poem — read by the author