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Auntie Edie

I started meeting Auntie Edie in the mirror,
so rooted out the tiny photographs to check:
her nose and lips were coarser, but the shape’s the same …

Great Aunt Edith – to us the funny snob who came
to tea on Thursdays and ‘wasn’t used to children’.
Shapeless and sagging, she’d never worn a bra,
had sparse grey hair scraped back into a bun
and used to drawl ‘I know, I know’ to everything we told her.

She instructed me it’s wrong to say ‘I love ice cream!’ –
‘Such feelings are for people – not for objects or for food.’
We imagined she knew nothing of any sort of love;
She let fall little hints – mysterious men in France before the war –
but Mum said she just made that up, there never was a man.

I’ve found a relic which backs up the fabled snobbishness:
a thirties’ menu from The Women’s Business Club in Glasgow –
peas, potatoes, dressed lamb cutlet, speech by Mrs Tweeddale –
unassuming friends like Betty Kingdon, Florrie Clough
have signed their names alongside ‘Edythe’ Griffin.

My sister startles me by saying, ‘I loved Auntie Edie.
We used to visit her in that old people’s home in Eccles –
I was only little, and we’d nod and wink at one another secretly.
I was really cross they wouldn’t take me to her funeral
and didn’t go themselves.’

Looking at her photograph,
I see myself an old and tiresome woman,
holding out my cherished memories to unbelieving visitors …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

First published in Iota 36, 1996

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Seven Ages of Woman

She had a beautiful mother,
serene in a sepia photograph
who cried over every debt;
her father was happy-go-lucky,
a charmer and very bright;
a Methodist grandfather killed himself;
her grandmother’s hair grew down to her knees.

Cycling the three miles to grammar school
in a uniform sizes too large
with a second-hand hockey stick
and fingers chapped from the cold,
she identified flowers by the roadside.
Small round glasses and wrinkled stockings,
her life was all books and the seasons.

She worked as a teacher, then as a secretary,
and on the train from Luton to London
she met a fellow commuter. They loved one another
but for months she wouldn’t take him home –
her sister had a baby and an atmosphere;
he insisted, and after the wedding
they lived in a flat close to Paddington.

She gave her daughters comfort and stability,
caught their floods of words
which rushed from every day.
Best times were half-term shopping in the town,
then cups of tea and reading by the fire.
Eventually they left for work and college:
she never held too tight, but missed them.

Her fellow traveller journeyed on –
he formed a company and she assisted.
Through the days she typed and checked;
at night and in unsettled dawns
lay listening to his plans and fears,
always reassuring, willing his success:
she only turned from him to hide the growing lump.

Disease had spread and held her hostage –
feline cancer seldom lets its victims stray.
For years it failed to mawl her spirit
even when the stick progressed to wheelchair;
only when she couldn’t stir from bed,
jousting pain with ranks of coloured pills,
she said, ‘I hope this won’t go on much longer.’

Her taut neck stretched across the pillow,
face attenuated back to youth,
the ageing woman and the little girl are one.
The curtain descends on seven ages –
invisibly, they take their final bow.
Nurses, importunate ushers, quickly confer
and parcel her up in a sheet.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

Saying goodbye

The flesh drained back on to the pillow
so his nose poked up surprising, sharp,
a single flower placed beside his head,
below his green-pyjama’d shoulders –
fragile, like a child laid lovingly to sleep.

There were signs his nose had bled –
otherwise he looked tidy and so still.
His eyes were closed, his mouth fixed
wide open in a grimace of false teeth;
his beard neat, the hair above his ears
curlier, more playful than I’d thought.

On Sunday afternoons, a child,
I’d stared so often at his sleeping chest,
convinced the next breath wouldn’t come,
that now I stared again and waited –
unwilling to believe that chest was still forever –
for him to say, ‘Hello, dear – is it tea-time yet?’

Beyond the window I looked out of,
to the outside world opaque,
unknown unknowing people crossed the carpark,
visiting – leaving – friends or relatives,
deliberately jolly, insultingly alive –
as though some other outcome could be theirs.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Orbis No.99, Winter 1995

Ironing the hankies

I’ve done his shirts. Now I’m on the hankies.
I learnt on these. My mother thought I couldn’t harm
the plain white squares. He had plenty anyway.

First you flatten out and heat away the creases,
then fold in half, do both sides, fold again,
ending with a steaming, neatly cornered wedge.

Clean hankies conjure up his optimistic mornings:
watering the plants before setting off for work
humming with vitality, redolent of soap.

Now there’s not much sense in being optimistic.
All that’s left to hope for – a pain-free, sudden end.
In the meantime I continue ironing the hankies,

pressing all my love into worn white cotton.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Understanding 6, 1996

Snapshots

I fell on to the pebbles from his shoulders:
‘Are you all right?’ my first anxious words –
adults had so far to fall. He told my mother
how absurd I was to worry about him. I never
thought how scared he must have been for me.

I couldn’t get my key to turn and kept on struggling,
trying to pretend the lock was only stuck inside my head.
Damp from swimming, tears about to add to all the wet,
I was rescued by a sympathetic mother-type
who led me to the desk to ask for help.
From the corner of my eye I saw him waiting –
his towel rolled up, impatient for his breakfast.
He looked as though he wished I wasn’t born.
When I at length emerged, we drove away in silence.

I saw my first nude men (apart from him)
when he took me to the Everyman in Liverpool –
it wasn’t quite what he expected but we both enjoyed it.
Another time we went to see Jean Brodie, he alone
applauding when a schoolgirl did a handstand.
Zhivago, West Side Story, Zefirelli’s Romeo – I saw them all with him,
fighting back my tears in case he called me Fairy Liquid.

He took me out to eat the night my finals ended.
I knew I’d hear the outcome in the morning, so was distracted
when he handed me the largest cheque he ever had.
He told my mother I didn’t seem very grateful.

He cried into the washing-up.
My sister had explained Mum wouldn’t last another day,
cancer having cleared a path for chest infection.
He’d thought it could go on like this for months.

We stood on platforms facing one another –
me going back to London, he to work.
Both tried to look absorbed in something else.
I wondered how he’d be next time I saw him.
His train came first; he settled by the window –
then we waved at one another, smiling.

I left him in an armchair with his sherry –
I’d turned down having one as well. I’d held his hand
when all the drugs had made him feel peculiar,
pushed him in a wheelchair for a change of view –
he’d hunched up small to negotiate the doorways
for I seemed rather clumsy, as usual with him.
I clothed his swollen feet in baggy socks,
kissed him twice and left, not turning back.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

 

A Dying Song

‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed,
until he was breathless and pumped full of drugs. In the end
his heart couldn’t cope – perhaps it was all for the best.

He carried on working and lived with habitual zest –
tenacious of life, he’d never call illness a friend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

Decked out in his suit for the office, who could have guessed
he was ill, or how ill he was? He didn’t intend
his heart to give up – they say it was all for the best.

Bewildered and hopeful, he underwent all kinds of test –
he was so disappointed to learn that a liver won’t mend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

In the hospice the rabbi said ‘Death is like sailing off west’ –
he made it sound easy, as though one could send
him away with a wave, saying ‘It’s all for the best.’

He battled each phase of disease but wasn’t impressed
by doctors’ vague words – he’d rather they didn’t pretend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed –
his heart couldn’t cope, and I won’t say it’s all for the best.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Iota 34, 1996

Reviews of The Burning Time

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David Aaronovitch in The Times

“This gruesomely entertaining book examines the Tudor zeal for burning people in the name of religion, says David Aaronovitch.”

Steve Tomkins in The Church Times

Reviews at Goodreads.com

Bob Duffy in The Washington Independent Review of Books

“An authoritative chronicle of the gruesome era when religious dissenters met their end at the stake.”