(for James Norton 1910-1985)
A man about
his business, he wears a hat and long overcoat and carries a small suitcase in
his right hand. The hat is tilted a little to the side. An indent of shade
shows the mark of the hand that shaped and set it that morning.
In the hall mirror
he places it just so
his brown felt crown
The brim is drawn down, shadowing his eyes. He is looking to the the left, perhaps glancing in the shop window as he passes Sheila Frocks by Clery's in Dublin's O'Connell Street. The light reflects from his right cheek. The shading below its bone reveals a lean face. His lips are set firm, above them is the darker line of the moustache he kept fastidiously trimmed. He is thirty one but looks older. Collar and tie. The long lapels of the open overcoat reach to below his sternum. His pants are fashionably baggy. The sheen on the toecaps of his shoes shows a high polish. Something white protrudes from his left fist – a handkerchief perhaps? The day is warm: he sweats a little. A street photographer steps forward.
out of darkness
Not - my Da. Not the shyly-smiling face in albums. Not the workhorse harnessed to a family of eight. Not the smoke-haired wraith who, forty years hence, will ask me what went wrong. Him.
Now he will turn left for Amiens Street railway station and, as the sun sets, reach his destination: Belfast after the blight of 1941:
after the fireworks
above rubble-strewn streets
Tomorrow he'll go to Queen's Island and report for work at Short and Harland Aeronautical Engineers, and for three years on and off, rivet together the aluminium wings of Stirling bombers. Heady work for a bicycle shop man.
His journey not mine. I am unborn. Yet here I am, an old boy now, twice his age then, waiting to board the Translink to Belfast, where I've never been. To travel free I must complete a dual-jurisdiction form. The name I sign is his.
His has a wife and child. His bicycle business has gone bust for want of steel. A protestant friend procures him a union card. Does he hesitate?
Do they hear the drone of Luftwaffe planes over their house on Dublin's North Strand that night in 1941?
cradled under the skylight
The percussive force of the bomb which killed twenty-eight people that night blew in the glass but left the child unhurt. Six months later he leaves the neutral Free State for Ulster at war.
The familiar coastline slips by. Who taught me the names of these little harbours, on our Sunday drives – my Da, or him? Now we pass between green and orange.
Skeins of hail
trailing from a thundercloud
whiten the Mournes
'Queen's Island?' I am a traveller from the past. 'You mean Titanic Quarter!'
Aquamarine sky, sunlight hard and brilliant, the breeze off Belfast Lough sharp as a blade.
Particles of ice
on the handrail of Queen's Bridge
don't know they've fallen
The heritage trail: where in all this did he work? Nearby is a vast vacant lot. Maybe here, minding his own, making bombers.
Blowing in the wind
every kind of flowering weed
landing where it will
He'd bring his wife and child to live in digs in north Belfast, then back to Dublin, always following the work.
I've not come for the Titanic, but a simpler memorial draws me: her registration number stencilled on a sheet of rusted steel.
Proud of the surface
a loose screw throws its shadow:
sunset on Cave Hill
in a battered old suitcase
Among his things a small sheet of paper, yellowed, foxed, creased and coming apart along the folds, headed with the company name, his misspelled, a work reference, their measure of him. It's dated May 1947.
Another to feed:
seven months in utero
that'll be me
He called me son. I called him Da. That's how it was with us then, and ever would be, me and him.
In the shifting light of that last afternoon he stands naked before me. He has risen from his cot, small, skeletal, bewildered. A son should not see his father so.
His sac hangs from him huge and empty: a father not be so.
He asks me to tell him what has happened: how the shipwreck, what the iceberg? I know he does not expect a reply. He asks that I hear him asking.
One in unknowing, we face each other, then and now.
In the mirror
this face I am known by