My body imagines itself a ship,
a barque perhaps, from days gone by.
It’s moving sluggishly now. Maybe
there’s not a lot of wind. The sailors
lounge about on deck and a cabin boy
peers out of a porthole. He can’t sit down:
he’s still recovering from the flogging
the first mate gave him for stealing
tobacco. He’s not too keen on this ship,
wishes he hadn’t signed on for the voyage.
But they couldn’t keep him at home,
Mam had twins last time and there’s
no work in the village. Meanwhile,
the first mate is dreaming of Madeira,
where they’re heading – he’s got
a girl there, thinks she’s his wife,
and truth be told, he likes her better
than his wife, and Madeira better than
Stepney. Maybe he just won’t come back,
though it’s a tough life farming bananas
on the edge of a cliff, and he doesn’t
speak the lingo. And if he’s caught,
it’ll be walk the plank time, Sunny Jim.
Captain’s in his cabin, drunk as per,
tried to get a blow job off the bosun,
now realising the size of his mistake,
blackmail in the offing … says he’ll
tell the Admiralty about scenes
of debauchery and unnatural practices.
Nothing odd about it, thinks the Captain,
slurring his words even in his own head.
Admiralty knows that, trouble is, not
the thing to have complaints, plus
under a warning already.
Damn and blast these warm breezes,
this gentle swell, put you in mind
of a life of Reilly, coconuts, sandy
beaches, sweltering skies. He hiccups
and my body fills its sails,
readying itself to repel boarders,
pirates known in these parts,
twinkling eyes and swarthy skin,
knives flashing between rotting teeth,
what’s stored down below?
Secret swag: bolts of indigo cloth,
Bismarck herring in barrels of salt,
slaves with pleading eyes and ladies
cowering in crinolines, bran tubs
hiding Chinese carvings and maybe
an unexpected rat or two nibbling
at exploring fingers. Gems from Thailand,
spices from Zanzibar, whalebone for corsets,
some sailor dying of a lingering illness,
baccalhao for the quintas of Madeira,
the ship’s cat, limes for the scurvy,
beeswax and paraffin, oranges taken on
in Tangiers, an artist’s easel and the odd
tube of paint, (artist put off at Tangiers).
There might even be a stowaway creeping
around in the night while the crew snore
in their hammocks, dreaming of snow
in the woods and hot chestnuts and
skating on the tarn with kid brothers
in a life a world away from here.
My spars are creaking and cracking,
the sails smack in the wind, the jibs
and the booms whack and slam,
the ropes twist and the rowlocks grind,
there’s a teetery tottery feeling as I
gather speed and, lurching and wallowing
in the roiling sea as the wind howls
round the rigging, set a course northerly.
I’m a tough old barque, not quite ready
for my last voyage, even though
my hold on reality is frail; I’ll outrun
and outgun the pirates, to come safely
in to some foreign port, pick up
turmeric and echinacea, ibuprofen and
Gaviscon, to ease my passage home