Bridge Over The Aire Book 5
The mooring posts marked on the South Leeds map
Of 1908 still line the Aire’s side, huge, red
With rust, they stand by the Council’s Transpennine
Trail opposite the bricked and boarded up Hunslet
Mills with trees growing from its top storey, roofless,
Open to the enormous skies of our childhood.
The Aire Suspension Bridge, always my bridge,
Has gone from wartime camouflage grey to
Council green with a traffic island in between
The lanes where lorries roar and silent anglers
Stitched along the shore shelter under the
Giant red, green and yellow umbrellas of Monet.
In the Aire’s clear waters salmon dart and
Giant trout are basking in the sun;
There is abundant clay for potters’ wheels
With haptic stone for sculptors’ hands
And the surrounding water is lapis lazuli and ochre.
The steps to the moorings have been carved
Out of indigenous rock and the bridge itself,
Arch by arch, was made of Hunslet iron and brought
On drays two hundred yards from the foundry where
They forged it and it was laid, cantilever by cantilever
By local men hammering home the bolts
From the Hunslet Nail Works.
They fashioned a toll-gate and a keeper came
And sat in a booth with his pipe and a ledger
To take down comings and goings in the curious
Copper-plate of the Hunslet Board School and
Beneath the bridge sailed dhows and catamarans
And coal barges with captains who smoked short
Stubby pipes in shirt-sleeves and Van Gogh was
There to capture them on canvas after canvas.
Vermeer had exactly the touch and his palette
Was right for the chiaroscuro of the back-to-backs;
He got the particular yellow of the donkey-stoned
Steps and the waxed scarlet rinds of the Edam our
Mothers bought up at the Maypole.
There was a heat haze over Accommodation Road
And in it we saw the oases of Kandinsky
And listened to camels’ bells
And tasted the dates of the abundant palms.
There was a boat deep-delved
Sitting in the water
There was the sun of spring
On the bridge’s span
Over your shoulder
Over the worn collar
Of your mauve blazer.
Only through poetry
Does the beauty last
Broken on the surface
Of the water.
Aire moving to the sea
Sun on water glistening
Flecked with gold
Petrol rainbows in the pools
The bridge’s arc a double
Rainbow where I stood with you
At the top of the steps
To the river
The steps are crumbling
Worn with waiting
Your words awakened
Took me by surprise
I have been there ever since
By the look in your eyes.
I write between the lines
Of the Great Northern Goodsyard
My staves are the buffers
My stops the buffer ends.
Ben’s cycle shop at Crossgreen had the odd few Christmas toys
A clockwork Triang train in a grand cardboard box, on the cover
A boy in a red pullover glowing over ‘The Coronation Scot’
Full-steaming ahead through glens and loch-laden mountain
Scenes and a sign ‘To Edinburgh Fifty Miles’.
Waking, a few weeks later, to find the box bulging my Christmas
Pillowcase, I wound the green engine incessantly and put it
On the track but it always came off at the first bend.
I coupled up the chocolate-coloured carriages, sending it
Across the carpet till it hit the fender, crashing over
With its wheels spinning in the air, going nowhere.
In Mr Murray’s papershop were boxes of string on shelves,
Penny ice lollies ;you sucked until the colour went, leaving
You with ice castles on sticks. Every week I bought two
Threepenny Sexton Blake mysteries, sixty-four action packed
Pages, full of rascally Lascars and pig-tailed Chinese devils.
There were twopenny packets of stamps for my Royal Mail Album
Stately portraits of Sun Yat Sen, Gold Coast clippers, salt
Gatherers on a palm-fringed shore - ‘Turks and Caicos Islands’.
Len the cobbler kept tacks beneath his tongue, a trick
He was taught at Cobblers’ College; he said he could spit
Them straight into the leather but only without an audience
Whose eyes stopped the magic from working.
Up Easy Road was Rocket’s Greengrocers - Stanley Rocket
Had a green van he took me and Colin in, delivering.
In Kirkgate Market Car Park the attendant shouted,
“On your way, sky-rocket, you’re too mean to pay!”
Stanley laughed and parked anyway but he told us
To hush when we drove to the house of a Big Doctor
At the Infirmary. A snooty housekeeper took the box
Of fruit and veg in, sniffing all the way to the
Back at the shop on brass rails were clumps of bananas,
Tins of under-the-counter Grade ‘A’ salmon and their
Aunt Mary had her chiropodist’s surgery over the shop;
When I got a verucca at the baths she scraped it away
Week after week till it bled into nothing.
Up Easy Road was the Maypole with its tiled tapestry of
Village Green, flower-decked maypole and dancing children
Like little Shirley Temples with bows in their hair and
Bows tied to their shepherds’ crooks. There were biscuits
In boxes with glass tops and Mrs Hyde, the manageress,
Used to give me custard creams to persuade my mother
To be a Registered Customer but she wouldn’t move from
Boring Rockets with their cheap bruised fruit.
When her mam called Margaret in ‘To run an errand’
It was only me she took with her over the suspension
Bridge down Hunslet to the corner shop ‘For a packet of
Dr. White’s, Margaret whispered in my ear, touching the
Lobe with her tongue and her eyes shone.
The best part of Saturday was the afternoon matin?e
At ‘The Princess’ - penny ice lollies, Big Jim slapping
Heads - “Shurrup!” His beer-belly, bear-body growled
At the silence.
Every seat was filled and next to me Margaret was intent
On “The Little Rascals”. So I put my arm around her and
She pretended not to notice. The walk home together
Was long and delirious, pushing Margaret on the swings
In East End Park higher and higher, the chain links
Rattling, blood drumming in her ears, her hair falling
over her forehead, the colour rising in her cheeks.
The avenues through the trees were Versailles and
Windsor Great Park, the earth mound by the main gate
The ramparts of Troy.
How she could encompass me in her own fragility!
At ten she looked after her two year old sister
And already delinquent younger brother, their
Mother working shifts, making sandwiches in Redmond’s
Pork Butchers’ basement.
Alone at dusk on East End Park a strange mister
Showed himself to her but she only laughed.
Once, while we were playing on the Hollows,
She asked me what V.D. was but I was too embarrassed,
The harder I tried to explain, the more she laughed.
When we saw a drunk staggering Chaplinesque from
Lamp-post to lamp-post I started to laugh but
simply she said, “Poor man!“ shaming me to silence.
Perhaps her pity was for her absent drunken father,
Every year serving six weeks in Armley for maintenance.
Once, on a hot summer afternoon, Margaret and I were
Sitting in the binyard telling stories when he came
Unexpected and awkward with chocolate. “What do you want?”
Asked Margaret’s mam, facing him and he mumbled and shuffled
A thousand visits to the supermarket
A thousand acts of sexual intimacy
Spread over forty years.
Your essence was quite other
A smile of absolute connection
Repeated a thousand times.
Your daily visits to the outside lavatory
While I stood talking outside,
an intimacy I have sought
With no other.
My greatest fear is that you might
Have changed beyond recognition.
Submerged in trivia and the
Minutiae of the quotidian.
At ten my adoration of you was total,
At fifty-four it is somewhat greater:
I place you among the angels and madonnas
Of the quattrocento, Raphael and Masaccio
And Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura.
Summoning the ghosts of the dead
I do not dream of Caesar
But of you Uncle Arthur
In your greasy overalls,
Home from Hudswell Clarks
In Hunslet, copper-smith
Who helped to build
Tank engines for Ceylon,
Double-headers for the Veldt.
From fourteen to fifty-four
You never had a day off sick,
Your trips to Blackpool
Every Banky week were always
Blessed with non-stop sun
And Bamforths’ postcards
Showed you shared the beach
With half of Leeds
One day you came home early,
Sat fidgeting before the fire,
Smoking one Capstan Full Strength
After another; Auntie Nellie
Was working at the Maypole
So you told me, at twelve,
Your troubles, “They just went
Bust once gaffer died, his lad
Just couldn’t thoil it, so we got
Our cards and that was that”.
For months he moped, they told him
Copper-smiths were no more use,
“It’s plastics now” and he was
Far too old to learn another trade
And then the Maypole folded too
When supermarkets came and Nellie
Stayed with you at home until
She dropped behind the door
And no-one knew for hours.
The hospital they took her to
Had wooden prefab wards; I visited
One Sunday afternoon, she held on
To my hands and kept on crying,
“Barry, tell your dad he’s educated,
He’ll know how to get me out”.
She cried until she died
And Uncle Arthur lasted
Two years more; they knocked
The houses down and so he moved
But never bothered to unpack,
Dying in hospital during
A routine check.
Eggshell and Wedgwood Blue were just two
Of the range on the colour cards Dulux
Tailored to our taste in the fifties,
Brentford nylons, Formica table tops and
Fablon shelf-covering in original oak or
Spruce under neon tubes and Dayglo shades.
Wartime brown and green went out, along with
The Yorkist Range, the wire-mesh food safe
In the cellar, the scrubbed board bath lid
And marbled glass bowl over the light bulb
With its hidden hoard of dead flies and
Rusting three-tier chain.
We moved to the new estate, Airey semis
With their pebble-dash prefabricated slats,
Built-in kitchen units and made-to-measure gardens.
Every Saturday I went back to the streets,
Dinner at Auntie Nellie’s, Yorkies, mash and gravy,
Then the matin?e at the Princess with Margaret,
The queen of my ten-year old heart.
Everybody was on the move, half the neighbours
To the new estates or death, newcomers with
Rough tongues from over the bridge slum clearance.
A drive-in Readymix cement works bruised the Hollows,
Ellerby Lane School closed, St Hilda’s bulldozed.
The trams stopped for good after the Coronation Special
In purple and gold toured the city’s tracks and
The red-white and blue on the cake at the street party
Crumbled to dust and the river-bank rats fed on it
Like Miss Haversham’s wedding feast all over again.
The cobbled hill past the Mansions led nowhere,
The buses ran empty, then the route closed.
I returned again and again in friends’ cars,
Now alone, on foot, again and again.
Come Whitsuntide the tally-men grew fat:
The poorest kids turned out in new blue
Worsted suits and matching caps, socks in
Scarlet plaid and mirror-shiny shoes so
When that special Sunday came they never
Missed a door to knock and say,
“Something for mi Whitsies, Mister, please”
And mostly people gave a tanner or a
Threepenny bit and felt all good inside.
The Fowlers had six boys and Jim was once
My mate but I didn’t like his manners much,
He’d gozzle on the wall and wee behind wagons.
When Julie saw his cock he laughed and winked,
“So what?” he said, aged ten, and hefted it,
His father liked a drink and every night
His mam and him went off down Hunslet Road
And left their six the key and came back
Singing late. Their dad once went off on his
Own but never came back: his hidden ulcer
Haemorrhaged and he spewed back seven pints
Of Tetley’s best, some blood and enough guts
To leave him dead.
Jim’s sorrow came in waves, for days he’d sit
And say, “‘E only went to a birthday party and
‘Ad one single drink” and other times he’d sit
And stare in silence. He was always loyal and
Once when someone from away passed our street
End and called me for my grammar school cap
Jim turned and said, “I go there, too, want to
Make something of it?” the menace of his five
Brothers heavy in the air
The Council gave his mam a bigger house
Up in the Fewstons but they couldn’t pay
The bigger rent or fares and came back quick
Enough to chump for Bonfire Night, trailing down
Knowsthorpe for broken branches, past the water
Works, where Kevin Keogh climbed the fence:
When the foreman saw his torn outsize overcoat
He slapped his head until it rang, “Keep out
You fucking Irish twat!” That was before I’d
Learned to answer back so when Ma Moorhouse
Clumped out in her calipers to tell us off
I asked, “By what law should we leave?”
And when she bellowed back, “Our Pete’ll do you
When ‘e’s ‘ome!” Jim, not to be outdone, laughed
And yelled, “‘E’s eighteen stone and couldn’t
Bash a bean, the gozzle-bag.”
When Margaret Gardiner came I left Jim and
He went with the older lads while I sat on
Margaret’s mam’s wall and made up stories.
Marlene joined up when we played ‘Doctors,
And Nurses’ and I was always the doctor and
Margaret the nurse and Marlene the patient
But Margaret would never change with Marlene
Who egged us on but I hung back when Marlene
Went off with the older lads and Margaret
For Whitsies wore her new mauve blazer and
I loved her deep, violet eyes and her mam
Had such a knowing look all summer long.