Doon the Watter, 1946
Overhead, wire baskets spill petunias.
Left and right, potted palms line the walls.
Far behind, our train’s gone back to Glasgow.
Somewhere ahead, the ferry must be late.
We’re on our Scottish family holiday.
My mother is already exhausted.
My sister Aileen nurses her new doll.
Its eyes click open, to catch me looking.
I am to be the man of the party.
My job is to manage the big suitcase,
my turn to carry baby Linda.
Over my head the talk is all of Glesca,
fitba’ teams, and doon the watter.
I know where we’re going, but where are we?
Among the palm fronds bathing beauties
rarely seen on Caledonian beaches
welcome us – where? ‘Say it “Weems Bay”,’
my mother tells us, ‘Welcome to Wemyss Bay’.
The family in front shuffles forward.
‘Wake up, Son!’ says the man behind us.
I shove the heavy suitcase its own length;
we all shuffle forward. Pick up your feet!
I shut my mouth on my father’s voice.
Where is he, I wonder? Our father
which art at the office, my mother says.
Perhaps he followed later – I don’t remember.
Now beach sand crunches underfoot,
and yes, we can smell the ozone!
A Picnic with Aunt Jean, 1947
One and two halves to Inverkip,
the station master there touched his hat
to Miss Jean Trotter, who ‘taught the piano’.
Our sandals followed her sensible shoes
to find from memory her perfect place
for picnics: dry grass, no cow-pats,
shade or shelter whatever the day.
We spread her tartan rug for the treats:
three rationed biscuits, one Spam sandwich,
an orange equally segmented –
‘You’re thirsty, there’s water in the burn!’
Hoping to catch its scales and arpeggios
Aunt Jean tapped her faulty hearing-aid,
but settled with her frowny smile
for practised Schubert and The People’s Friend.
One foot from our picnic, wildest Scotland
waited to be explored. I had an hour –
what would I find?
Right where that boy
bored with picnics
would build a stone dam
to bomb it flat
the sill where a pool
powers the ripple
held a wonder:
home-made from scraps
of salvaged offcuts
a flicker of light
set running – abandoned
to windfall branches
or tomorrow’s fresh
but working then
pacing the current.
I let my stone drop
and it’s turning still.
Around the marina a steel railing
ripples in waves into a crest, and falls
to mirror this morning’s flat silver calm.
At slack water of a spring tide low
in the harbour mouth a fishing boat
has gone aground. Suddenly idle
and waiting for his luck to turn,
her skipper tidies the deck, debates
his unexpected draught with locals
hanging out on the pier for excitement.
The other night the North Sea had flung
fistfuls of shingle at sleepless windows.
Time was, by ten o’clock next morning
the Master of the Signal Tower
who kept watch on the Bell Rock Light
would know by its mast-head signal if
their men had survived another storm.
No signal, and he launched a rescue.
Now the Tower is a museum,
open at ten, where Arbroath looks back,
and the Bell Rock looks back to its port.
No call for signals today; I think
that storm can have let nobody sleep.
But what if, tonight, with groaning rowlocks,
their clothing stiff with salt, dead tired, breathless,
the Keepers should come back to save Arbroath?