The tin soldier
On the night of her marriage, she presses her cold forehead against her bridegroom’s cheek
as they look through the window over golden city spires that glow under sunset like the dream of a promise.
Looking into the fall of darkness is like gazing into a shroud: a woman veiled white like a bride
and black in the Spanish lace of a mourner, with a face underneath of plaster and porcelain.
Lately she finds that her head will not fit the pillow when she lies in bed at her bridegroom’s side,
because the room is small and flickers by candlelight and the air is thick with the taste of molten metal.
She still remembers the stories of her childhood and if she is the ballerina, fashioned in paper,
self-consuming by flame, then he must be the tin soldier, fighting flood, fear, appetite to carry home his white-hot heart.
They are called church keys, loop-handled and slot-eyed; one tin-lead tear fixes each where hot iron touches.
She sits to work. Bunsen burners slow-hiss, and out in the bay a high tongue of flame flowers from the gas-plant.
A hard case, he left in the night without warning, no softening after all that shouting.
She glances between keys and tins. The day intensifies its noon of sardines, solder, rosewater and sweat. She works,
minding how lips wear gilt on chalice rims and seraphim in candlelight are packed in oil, laid
close as lovers’ souls, head to tail, locked reliquaries of foil and vertebrae of salt lace in pink driftwood flesh.
She knows a kind of metal rose is rolled from every opened lid, a tight-wound, sharp-edged spring.
After the siren she’ll find him. Tomorrow’s fleet will spew the catch, and she will fix a key to every tin.
The key to all desire
The Jack-in-the-box has a smiling face and ratchets its spring through the blackout.
Even in sleep, they await the jolt: the horror and cramp of its presence.
What little they have brings them pleasure: the ripe damask drapes, a fraying armchair
sheathed in voile, the fireplace roasting the tiles as the coals glow and fall into white ash.
Everything in the room cushions their desire, though her lips are always at the keyhole
as if speaking aloud could be an entrance or muster the grace of a long-ago key.
He finds his way under the blank alley lamp, as she watches the door from an old tin bath.
She turns all night on a gilded box, and spins herself to paper, to fire, to clay.
The North Fields
Between times she walks the cut North Fields by the river where sky goes on forever and sees white bramble flowers, white horses against green, and willow leaves
hungering a wind that never takes them, never lets them go. The daytime moon is dumb against the sky, a thumb-print in distemper on a wall;
and bells ring clear brought close by breeze then snatched away again and as she walks she observes one magpie, two, a heron still gazing, then a blackbird, then a brimstone butterfly
so river flats unfold. Between times she fills jugs and empties bowls, hangs out cloths and towels, kneads dough.
Fruit - between times cut and cooked; thread through the needle eye, between times pressed, between times put away
until she stands again to wait, alert for what is sudden; always much too early or too late, and at the door no moon now. Cold dew. Owl. A twig-crack. Pipe smoke in the air.
She finds herself at the end of North Street beneath the shadow of the town-hall clock, and the chiming hours are still so familiar that her packed suitcase falls to the curb.
She can see through the looking glass window of Bellai's Café that it's open for business, not as it is, but as it used to be: a cardboard sign hung on the open door with a scrawled ‘OPEN'
while inside the delights of ice-cream and coffee are sat on yellowing plastic-coated tables, and, at the back, Bellai works the dials and levers of the coffee machine like the head of a crazed elephant.
At one of the tables, two ageing brothers, the twins, Jack and Harry Cole, play dominos. Four gnarled hands reach in to break the lines, setting the small black sleds awry on the tabletop.
"Bardi, Italy" was Bellai's home. "Bardi after Bardus, the last elephant of the barbarian Hannibal's army." And she recalls the foundering elephantine liners sunk in the Atlantic under the stings of stukas.
So she steps into the café like a dream of home where a letter of condolence has not yet been written; suitcases and trunks lie unpacked; visas still in tact; and the family of Bellai work the café on North Street.