A poem about childhood fears morphing into ones of an adult nature. Most people of my age remember their first sighting of the ubiquitous Daleks. They held an unease over me much like the octopus did in my childhood…that fear of wanting to look but not wanting to look at the same time. I have grown out of both fears (couldn’t take my eyes of Luna the octopus at Newquay’s aquarium) but there are always things to be frightened of.
It is also about my father and mother and a happy childhood
The National Dahlia Collection is at Varfell near Penzance and I get such enormous pleasure from visiting their field of specimens. It always brings back a rush of nostalgia. It is after all a collection rather than a garden…my Dad would have loved it.
DAD DIGGING, DR WHO AND THE DAH-LIAS
How does it work, this poetry lark? In my case
I step into my degenerating TARDIS (which stands for
Thoughts And Recollections Distilled Into Story)
And I’m careered back in time to another place,
Better only because I am younger and such is the way of things,
To the postcard-sized gardens of my council estate;
Havens amongst the black-remembered mills
Of the long lost legacy of the industrial north.
My father content in his garden. It’s Dad digging.
And I, like Heaney, merely mining moments
From a carefree and faraway childhood;
I take my pen and work the loam of memory,
Hopeful for the promise of enlightenment.
Spring would herald the preparation of his summer spectacular
This small squat man…Cornish-built …close to the earth;
Dad digging in a stained shirt (not from gardening) revealing
Pale freckled arms and dark elbows contoured in dust.
He works another’s soil with an age-old spade
Pitted with the horticultural heritage of his homeland.
Cutting through the tilth with the soft plash of industry;
Easing the passage of growth as he breaks up the soil with
His delicate fussing fingers; more pertinent to a writer
Seeding his plot and preparing the way for growth.
His garden, which the rest of the year contained only remnants
Of a previous owner’s horticultural exploits (I remember only
A deep red peony and the sweet gooseberries upon which
Dad would gorge as reward for his intimate endeavour).
He would dust the ground with bone meal, working in
The, unbeknown to me, finely ground slaughterhouse remains
(which possessed an uneasy fragrance, the pleasant lighter notes
Of the over-powering stench of the Burnley abbatoir).
The great Dutch dahlia catalogues would rattle the letterbox
And Messrs Blom, Bakker and Geerling would, like eager parents
Keen to show you photos of their children, present their latest offerings
In fulsome colour. No black and white here…what would be the point?
I would marvel at the mauves, outstanding oranges, deep wines,
The purple and white bi-colours and the salmon-beiges…
Weeks later, brown paper sacks postmarked Nederland, would arrive
Bearing dull stamps with the silhouette of some other, older queen.
They’d be hurried through the house before Mum could see them.
Together Dad and I would make long complicated bus journeys
To visit nurseries in the unknown corners of West Lancashire
Or go and see Mr Barwise, the mage, a doyen among the dahlia set,
Hidden away in his nursery in the grounds of Towneley Hall
And I would watch as my Dad, always retiring and ill-at-ease
With his ‘perceived’ betters…doctors, councillors, managers,
Would blossom in the company of a fellow gardening man.
A few months would pass and I busy with ‘playing out’…
Fighting Japs as commando; and having adventures
In the lost valleys and beaten bounds of my hometown
Would not notice the verdant sward that began to dwarf
The one inch by one inch square wooden stakes
Each set out a dusty boot’s width from the crown to protect it.
And then it was like Whaam! A detonation of colour
Hemmed in by the surrounding walls of inappropriate privet
This peacock garden…would become an tumescent showcase;
A mating display for the benefit of the drab neighbouring
Gardens of lawns, lavender, lobelia and listless roses
Which would, for a month or so, pale into insignificance.
You see, Dad was more collector than gardener, not for him
The geometrically perfect pom-pom. Too small…beneath him
He liked the grandest most showy specimens – icono-blasts of colour
And dahlias are the greatest example of floral pyrotechnics
Which still delights the indolent old man I’ve become but
Not enough for me to undertake all that necessary work.
I am happy just to look and admire and cosset my memories.
I recall Dad dawdling in his demesne eager to harvest
The praise of those marvelling at his creations
As they short-cut by on the way to the paper shop.
Not a natural smiler on account of his small mouth
His eyes would squeeze tight shut with glee, and his face
Would morph into a beatific sculpture. ‘Joy’ by Henry Moore;
An extra-terrestrial’s first attempt at registering human delight.
He would send me in to ask if Mum would like some in the house.
“It’s Dah-lias” she said. “That’s what the Americans call them.”
And that for her was enough. Everyone loved the Americans then.
Brought up on Motion Picture and Filmgoer mags, she was,
Despite her marriage to my economic migrant father,
Still carrying a torch for Errol Flynn who wasn’t American…but sort of…was.
“Why don’t you want them in the house, Mum?” I asked.
“It’s the earwigs that come in with them” she said.
Dad would shake the chosen blooms and we’d watch them fall out
Like badly-burnt cornflakes from out the packet (with no plastic toy),
Beauty and those beasts with their evil-looking rear-end pincers.
They seemed happy living in the warmth of those dahlia petals
But would be looking for another cosy home when winter came
And where better than the dark recess of a sleeping child’s ear?
So, justified, I would return with her message to the garden
“Mum says give them to Mrs Slinger…she likes Dah-lias!”
Resigned he would shake his sunburnt head and I’d watch
In fascination to see if any earwigs cascaded from out of him.
Do not feel sorry for my Dad and his unrequited gift of love;
A greedy gardener who only offered up his blooms when he knew
They had passed their peak in performance. It was all for his show
His earthly paradise in the summer months when football,
The other love of his contented life, ironically hibernated.
When the flowering display was over I’d like to watch
As he sliced into the earth, gauging the soil-grasping spread
Of his darling tubers, each one responsible for the beauty burst
Of these petrified explosions and glorious sumptious suns.
He would gently lift them, brushing away the loose soil
To reveal skeletal hands that hung from a severed wrist;
Dead man’s fingers now engorged with the promise of resurrection.
For him each one a Proustian madeleine, a cherished memory
Lovingly wrapped in saved back copies of the Burnley Express
And placed into the subconscious of the pebble-dashed coal shed.
And here I invoke my own involuntary memory, seeing them
Nestled in the protection of redundant orange boxes
As a swollen gnarled finger protrudes from its cover;
A malignant tuber, pointing out in a threat of accusation
“This is not the last you’ve seen of me…I will return.”
Even in the colour vacuum of 1960s television
In which it was first presented, The Dalek, was impressive,
(Now, when looking back they seem laughingly inept
When, despite the ability to travel light years through space,
That most basic of human creations – the staircase would stymie them)
But to my shiny, brand-new imagination they appeared awesome
In the true sense of the word. Their lack of emotion…power dressed…
And designed to impress. I had seen their likeness in post-war movies
They were to all intents and purposes – our enemy – space Nazis
Relentless in their quest for destruction and power.
I recalled the dismantling of a Dalek in fuzzy black and white;
The creature within removed and cradled with undeserved care
As reverentially as some bizarre unearthly Nativity scene.
The closing shot revealed a pathetic, arthritic digit stretching out
Accusingly from beneath the folds of it swaddling clothes.
Back then I couldn’t shake away the resemblance
As easy as my father did the troublesome earwigs.
Looking back now this finger of fate is just enough to trigger
The idea that we all arrive in the same protective white blanket
Each mewling babe stretches out a pointing finger from a tiny hand
And one will use that hand to create The Last Supper
And another will use it to point the way to The Final Solution
The image still haunts me and ever will no doubt…
Just as this beauty comes back year upon year
So must evil and it too will be swaddled in a blanket,
Entirely innocent and waiting to be nourished and nurtured.
Waiting…just waiting for those earwigs to crawl inside its head.
Just like the dah-lias.
As a child the winter months passed and any trip out to the dustbin
Would see me make a cautious glance at the galvanised latch
That was all that held fast the ‘eau-de-nil’ council-painted door
That kept me safe from something nasty stirring in the coal shed.
© gray lightfoot