Coming to Grief

"For the cherub Cat is a term of the angel Tiger" Geoffrey Smart

"And with ae lock o' his gowden hair//I'll chain my hairt forever mair" - Scottish traditional song The Border Widow's Lament, loosely based on the real execution of Pearce Cockburn

Pearce and Marjory Cockburn lie under grass
in the green woods, side by side, with a true blade
over them: the peel
from which he reived and raided, lived
and loved, where he was taken,
and hanged long-fallen
to an army of sheep. These lovers lie
lapped in my old friend's land: these flocks
her brother's ward, as you were once in hers
whose mother met
her transformation to a border widow with the Widow's words,
to chain her heart forever in a lock of hair, like Marjory;
old memory
binding the land and those who hold it in a skein of song.

The first I knew of you
other than as a flickering image on a screen of glass
(other than as a pressure in my head, a vast distress
I could not trace the source of) was the news
how you were taken,
held - not for the reiving of the royal deer,
like Pearce, but just for fear -
for not betraying brutal men for dread of pain,
and that you could not bear to have it known
how they had shamed you, how as youth
and young man you were put to torture - endless
punishment, you said, but not
for any crime
nor for a span of days, but half a lifetime subject to
both injury
and insult, made to feel
that you were foul, were property,
mere meat - that not
for any great gain, not for
power, wealth, or health but for
a little grubby pleasure, quickly over; though for you
the wound would never heal.

And I think on the years my friend and I
were young together - years when I
was flying high: when I sang in the streets and danced
in the echoing hall,
and you were in pain and fear and I did not know it -
screaming for mercy and receiving none. Now all the years
I did not know your name or aid you taste of ash
and sorrow.

And I think on the day when you were in the cage and she and I
went walking by the grave among the green trees;
when we crossed the blazing hill by the sheep's road; scaled
to the Widow's mossy seat
above the waterfall, when all the while
I held you in my mind, a secret jewel.
Now it is you yourself are come to grief,
and I to grieve - I
who will never lie side by side with you,
and have not even a lock of your hair to chain me -
only your words

only the memory
of you - how I came to the cold court in the city of stones
only to show you even strangers cared for you, and you kissed me
for the kindness, and were not a stranger, suddenly - I never touched
any who felt more fine, more wholly right,
as a true-made blade
balances in the hand - we neither planned
I'd not embrace that balanced fire again

and I said
"If there is anything
at all" that I might do, only to give you ease and you said
"Write to me"

Words upon words, my words, my writing
blind, unanswered, when your mouth
was dumb with sorrow, and I grieved for you

Words upon words, mine, yours, and flying laughter when your mouth
was filled with hope

when you listened to the quicksilver singer, saying
"This poor man
is dead" - "like a ghost",
you said, to hear his voice yet sound, and we discussing
how he had died so young - I did not know
you too had sung like silver: now I long
to hear you, but your tongue is still.

And we spoke of a man I knew who cared for you,
who was merry and kind; you mourned his sickness, how
he slipped away from life before his child had the chance
to know him.

You said "Come and meet
my babies" - little
golden dogs, the high black car and the house I'll never
see now: I
was never happier - though you, I knew,
thought little of yourself, and feared to find
disgust or cold disdain in others' faces I
was flying high, only to have your favour - was as proud
as Lucifer because you trusted me; because I knew you, even;
and I sang in the streets and danced because my heart
was light with love and my feet must follow.

I knew so much about you I could weep for,
so much you'd suffered that was foul and terrible;
yet when I thought on you I smiled and all the time
we spoke together we
were laughing.

And I would have died for you:
I would have given you whatever good
I could. You called me
and light; had hope
and expectation of me, as I of you,
quiet things of each other - just to drink
and eat together, to be easy
and be laughing, as we always were; we never guessed
our laughter and our conversation would be interrupted
so abruptly - gods forgive us both
for all the things we had no time to say.

There was so much we both required to do:
always delaying for a week or two,
too easy with each other for impatience -
the weeks flowed by like water
and bled us dry.
The cake my mother meant to make you lay unbaked;
the beer I'd bought for you was broached, impatiently,
thinking I could buy more
before I'd see you: this at the time attracted
no significance, though now it seems
unbearably baleful.

And I think on the three days you were deathly sick and I
not knowing,
only that you were scared, and I was -
only I 'phoned you and the line was dead
and I felt you fading away from me like a tide
going out -
I never thought it would be you that was dead.
And did you feel
the same thing? - feel your friends
fading away from you as if some tide
was turning, you
not knowing why? And you said
"If I die
tomorrow..." let them remember me
for fighting back - for standing true
against the torturers:
though the mind scarcely could encompass what was done to you,
or how
any could wish to harm you. If it were
some fellow thespian you stole the scene from
brooding on strangulation, that I could credit:
but that men
knowing no difference between "love" and "crave",
to whom your open innocence, your very
vulnerability invited harm,
sought savage pleasure
making you cry aloud in pain
and shame surpassed
imagination. There were ever those
who liked their sex with violence
and the spectacle
of cruelty, but even Rome
did not do such with children:
but I said to you
you were the wild card - the Joker
that would trump them all
(though the cards showed us there must be
sacrifice made before your victory
I never dreamed the thing was meant
so literally) - you seemed to me
the tiger angel, not the kitten cherub child-
helpless victim but already victor
in every way that mattered; brave
bright-burning little tiger, so to stand forth against the darkness.
I always tried
all that I could to mend your pride, the sorest wound,
but never lied (except to tell you
I was two-thirds in love with you;
not wishing you to think me mad, and I
wholly in love when friendship was so new) - all of my praise of you
was wholly true.

How shall we who loved you live
with what was done to you,
now that you are not here yourself to help us bear it?
How shall we ever cease from sorrowing,
remembering your steady voice
recounting nightmare?

Sometimes you thought that to remove yourself
from life might mend the lives
of those who loved you, heal the hurt that came
from grieving for your pain but I told you if you did the pain
of your loss would be
insupportable, and it has proved so:
still when I think on you you make me smile
even so. I always thought
that you would make an ideal parent, gentle and loving,
supportive, entertaining; everything
any child well could hope for:
you'd have passed
before your children had the chance
to know you, and bequeathed to them
death for a legacy, as your blood-father left your death to you.

saw suffering and profit
from your child-like looks:
paid well to play the boy in public;
forced to in private to please lurid lusts -
but you were never other than a man to me. Now I grow older,
leaving you
forever young -
killed by an old man's heart at thirty-one.
What good to me is the house you will never now see?
When you were all the world to me,
how can the world and I be moving on
and leaving you behind?
How can you be in my past, when all I saw
or hoped for for the future had you in it?

I had not wanted any large unlikely thing - a meal, a drink, a laugh, to see you
smiling and easy;
I had not thought to see
and see forever you recede from me
clad in a little coffin in the low black car, your name
written in flowers...
red and yellow, garish-seeming: I suppose they were
but you were the gold in all our lives.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
in the funeral fire.

And you said "If I die
tomorrow..." let them remember me
for fighting back,
and perhaps to die a hero was the only salve
could heal your pride. You did not die
by your own hand of what was done to you;
the rôle that was your right, restored
your standing: in the event
no vile abuser stole your life, your future
and your player's place;
only our Mother Nature - and She
gets all of us.

And I know you could not stay, that you
went well and bravely, loved
and merry - still I wish
you could have waited,
even a little while - even if it were just to die
on stage, like Tommy Cooper,
flying high.
Come back to us sometimes as a tender ghost,
as a flickering image,
and make us laugh:
this world is a sad, grey place and you not in it, dear lad.

Claire Jordan

autumn 1996, New Year & spring 1999


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