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Volume 2 – Issue 4 – New Poems – Liz Lochhead – Scottish Review of Books
by Liz Lochhead

Volume 2 – Issue 4 – New Poems – Liz Lochhead

October 29, 2009 | by Liz Lochhead

Twenty One Year Old

On our first night at Jura Lodge you say:
‘here’s a bottle of the Twenty One Year Old,
hey Lizzie, let’s taste…’ and we toast
– once we’ve managed to track two nip glasses down – ‘oh there they are,Tom –
of course, my deah, on the decanter tray, mayhap, in the Music Room!’ I laugh,
oh I have to, as you slosh us each
a generous inch or more of gold, yes
you gently clink your glass with mine
and we toast
our good fortune and the holiday to come.

All holidays
are whole small lives lived somewhere else
and all lives consist, in part, of habits
but we don’t yet know this will be
one of the habits of this holiday –
on the long
nights of July
to sit astride that pair of purple velvet stools in the big
bay window of the Music Room looking out to the bay
with our
big brand new sketch books balanced before us and something more than twenty one years old and easy-listening playing – like old Van Morrison
predicting it’s a marvellous night for a moondance
or Dylan groaning out tangled up in blue
as I scrabble for that and every other colour, for
on the little gaming table between us
a jumble of oil pastels and coloured Conté crayon
is rolling around our rested whisky glasses –
occasionally savoured and sipped from, but never refilled – as busily, fluently, more or less silently,
we sketch and scratch away and scribble
not stopping till – late – all the last of the light is gone
and we can’t see
either what we’re drawing or the marks we’ve made.

It’ll be tomorrow
before I can enjoy the garish gladhanded sweep
you’ve made of a bit of the bay and pier and shrug
to see how hopeless was my
daft task of putting down the ever-changing sky
with its bands and streaks and shifting clouds
and almost every colour
sky blue.

But in spite of what
– on paper – neither of us captured
neither of us I’d bet
has ever been happier or easier with a crayon in our hands since we were five years old –
nor less self-critical about the outcome, so
we can look at the nothing much we’ve caught
(‘happiness writes white’ said Philip Larkin) and remember how lovely last night’s peace
watching the always eventful nothing happening
as the light spilled from the pool room of the hotel
and the players’ movements went like fiddlers’ elbows,
how now and then one person,
sometimes joined by another, then another
might linger by the back door with a smoke
and how – till it got too dark –
you could see the laughter you were far too far away to hear.

Some Things I Covet in Jura Lodge

that fearsomely fantastical
armchair upstairs made entirely of antlers and deerhide like something
out of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete
the tinpot suit of armour
the little green chipped 1940’s kitchen chairs
the lobster creel for a lampshade
the pink teacup the typewriter the old black phone
the old scuffed leather sofa the red Paisley throw
the floral lining of the Edwardian cabin trunk in the Rose Room

the Mozart printed cushions in the Music Room
that big mad portrait in the Portrait Room
of some little plumed Lord Fauntleroy riding on a goat!
the tall French mirror in the Portrait Room
the huge shell in the White Room
the bluebirds
on the glass fingerplate in the Bluebird Room
the tipsy wooden sea-gull
on the bedside table in the Bluebird Room
the Victorian ladies’ hunting jacket
the American Folk Art hangers with the heart-shaped cut-outs the tall window in the hall
on the blue wall
with the perfectly framed view of one of the Paps


Darling, it is your birthday.

This would be the twentieth we have woken up to together – except last year you were in hospital
and I woke alone at home early in our empty wide bed thinking of you a mile away in that
bleak narrow one with the hospital corners.

Today I woke first – the sun so bright it almost hurt streaming in through that swathe of white linen at the window and, picture of health, your head on the pillow
ablaze in its storm of grey curls I love.

Caught the sun, caught the sun, my love,
didn’t you, yesterday
on our first full day on the Isle of Jura?

Was it late in the afternoon, exposed on that
clifftop walk we took from above the Ferry at Feolin past Sailor’s Grave towards Inver and the ruins of Cnocbreac? Was it earlier in the deceptively dappled light
on the walk to Jura House Garden?

On the shore path at Ardfin, where the
fuschia flared and the flagrant rhododendrons blossomed along the loud banks of the Abhuinn Beag Burn?

Was it when we took our picnic of
oatcakes and cheese and apple and lay in the sun
against the rocks at Traigh Ban, the White Beach. Remember? Where those five blond tall
teenage lads, down from the Big House, no doubt,
were splashing and shouting in the surf till they
ran out, shaking themselves like dogs, laughing,
then paused to pass a pleasant time of day with such impeccable public school good manners
it was almost parodic?

Was it when, alone again on the empty beach,
we squinted into the sun
and looked for Heather Island and the ruined castle, argued whether in the distance
what we could see was Arran, Kintyre or Ireland
and you were trying to persuade me, teasing that
it might just be worth it to brave the water’s cold?

Did we catch too much sun later
in the blaze of the gardens,
among the astonishing arches, barbered slopes
and walled gardens of exuberant exotica?

Was it when I lingered in the shade of the sheds
selecting us each an artichoke for supper,
till, leaving the money in the trustbox,
I came out into the sun again to
see you with Peter Cool the gardener,
who was showing you, cupped in his hand, that perfect-looking house martin that somehow could not fly? No, I think we burned up
as we drew by the tea tent,
you and I facing in different directions,
so engrossed in what we were doing
we didn’t notice time passing or the sun beating down
or those so cheeky chaffinches sneaking under
the paper napkins to steal our lemon cake.

Yes, we must have spent an hour, more,
you with your big blue A3 sketchbook, I with my green. Your choice (outward) was wildmeadow, trees, sky, sea mine, didn’t know why, simply the tea tent.

Was it that in my mind sang out the first line
of the sonnet she is as in a field a silken tent?

Was it the cool dark of its interior, taut ropes,
the festive arabesques of its tent-white roof
against the intricate sky?

The swipe of its bonny blue awning?

Was it my longing to
loop across the page with blue those scalloped edges and dot the tall swathes of long grass and wildflower with poppies, kingcups, dandelions and something blue? I remember when it was time to pack up you said:
OK, a challenge, five minutes, we change sides
and draw the other person’s view and,
as it happened,
in five minutes
you caught more than I had in that whole hour.

Wake up, my twenty years’ love, and see
how many things can happen today…

That whisky we had a nip of last night had already made it to its bourbon cask for ageing
when your Dionysus curls were black as grapes and I buried my face in them on the
of the lovely,
birthdays we’ll have together.

Wake up, wake up
in this ridiculous room with
the huge shell bigger than a basin on the chest of drawers for this is a house of many concetti
and here where we sleep
the motifs
are the coral and the scallop and the conch,
a mollusc multitude
of small shells that are cockles whorls and spirals
tiny dishes of mother of pearl and unicorn horns all spilling from the ceiling’s chandelier
like grapes from a cornucopia.

So wake up, won’t you,
and enjoy being us
inside the shell of this morning here in the White Room?

In the bleached light the only colour
your old blue tee-shirt over the back of the basket chair
and the mottled, bottled shells
in those glass jars beside that great pile of blue-grey, slate-grey, sea-washed pebbles
making a raised beach of the mantelpiece.

The big deep roll-top bath that stands in this bedroom is the biggest and shiniest shell of all,
its inside so new it’s nacreous.

Oh, I’m going to let the
Buck’s Fizz we always have on birthday breakfasts
spill over
as I lie up to my neck in bubbles,
swigging it, be the
oldest, plumpest, homeliest, happiest,
most shameless Aphrodite on the half shell –
white curtains wide open
to the astonishing un-Scottish sun and the dazzling sea and you, my love,
sprawled across the bed opposite
talking to me and opening your presents.

Word in your shell-like, sweetheart, wake up!

With your birthday
a whole day
a holiday
before us.

These poems were written in response to a sojourn on the island of Jura and will be published in ‘Jura: Taste Island Life’. They form part of a soon to be launched Jura Writer Retreat programme in association with Isle of Jura Whisky and Scottish Book Trust, sponsored by Scottish Executive New Arts Sponsorship Awards, in conjunction with Arts & Business.

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