Unauthorised Absence

This year, when every fruiting bush and tree has dropped
a circle of its excess at its edge or foot,
which lies, a disregarded feast,
too gross a gift of nature even for the hungriest
or wisest woman, man or beast
to gobble or preserve or (as the squirrels do) secrete
more than a tenth part of, the rest consigned to rot;

this year, while for the fourth or fifth time I’m out
picking blackberries, each of whose inky mass
too easily collapses to a pulp unless
the gentlest grip of thumb and finger is applied:
I’m thinking of my great-grandfather, whom I loved,
who died when I was fourteen, who was born
in Portsmouth in the year the ruling class
had acted (in its celebrated epigram of scorn)
to ‘educate our masters’ — 1870.

His father, a marine, died when the boy was three.
At five, he gained a free place at the naval orphan school.
He learned to read, write, reckon quickly and well,
as those who’d legislated for him would have hoped.
In only one respect his ‘steady progress’ slipped.
On prize day, children who, September to July,
had ‘perfect attendance, perfect punctuality’
were given a certificate. He earned this honour rarely.
On his birthday in October — school day or no —
he was allowed a holiday. His mother wished it so.
She packed his lunch, slipped him a shilling, sent him out alone
to gather blackberries on the marshes up at Farlington,
where they were plentiful and easy to get at, on the flat.
All day he picked and picked, and saw no one.
At twilight he was back, his baskets loaded with the fruit.
She made jam. Some they ate themselves, the rest she sold.

He cultivated raspberries when he was old.
While picking them, he counted each ripe beauty, one by one,
and noted in a book the daily tally.
One day my granny said, ‘Run up the garden, John.
Tell father that his lunch is ready.’
As I began to speak, he raised his hand for me to stop,
mouthing the number he had got to in his head,
and then said, ‘All right, son. I’ve reckoned up.’

If memories are free food from the dead
I am a gatherer who’s glad
of all those I’ve lost count of in my head
and of the power to add.

Listen to this poem — read by the author