The row of camphor laurels by
the post office has been cut down. Now vacant sky
is leaning over the windowless rear wall
of the supermarket opposite; the street
is suffused with a sweet
medicinal aroma that recalls
in all of these sunlight-mottled details
—the drawn curtains, the rumpled bedclothes, a pillow
awkwardly slanted below
the painted bedboard—a long-lost childhood sickroom.
Yet do not try to compare
that room to a head without hair.
I am forced to consider the end
of a most particular friend.
The smell of camphor filling the air like a steam
infusion; camphor and jasmine mingled into steam
which hovers over roof-tiles angled off from the sun;
moss on the tiles, and fungus on tree-bark which could seem
like an accident victim’s neck-brace; vines tangled
over branches the way intravenous
tubes are entwined with a patient’s limbs;
algae on lawns which appear gangrenous—
everywhere there are things
in the process of being devoured by other
living things, and the presence of this seam
of particulars prompts, or brings
to the surface of my mind, that which would smother
the vital essence of one human life.
A medicinal scent in the still morning air, chainsaws
and lawnmowers at work while somebody’s wife
pegs a newly-washed bedsheet
to a line—yet today my sole obsession,
like the thoughts inflicted on one with depression,
is for a figure I never again can meet.
Now I must consider the end
of a most particular friend.
A clear unemphatic voice
phoning at an inconvenient time,
as would always seem the case in his prime,
expecting the listener to climb
out of bed or down from a ladder to hold
the earpiece impatiently while being told
about some digression, had unexpectedly called
to issue an invitation. Dripping and cold
at the time,
having stepped from the shower,
it seemed I had no choice
but to submit to a hearing which lasted an hour.
It began with an invitation to a game,
this friendship which was destined to endure
for two decades and more. Under a pure
blue sky a group of figures all in the same
white garments would walk onto a green field.
What was to be revealed?
It could have been any other game
except for the surroundings which comprised
steeple-high poplars and the sandstone college
of a university of doubtful fame;
it was like a village
green, with boundary flags and an oversized
afternoon tea concealed
in a hamper; and he was the one who came
running in to bowl with springy high steps
like a trotting pony or else perhaps
like a gymnast about
to be turned inside out
over a vaulting horse. Everyone knew his name
around that crowded field
which was like a village.
. . .
And there would be many more days almost the same
as that one, on grounds in distant suburbs
or on those nearby fields which he had privately
renamed—Obelisk, or Port-of-Spain; days
in the sun which never seemed to end.
. . .
Days under the sun which ended in defeat, or sometimes
in a victory
surprising as a good story;
afternoons random as the tune of wind-chimes.
His was a life which revolved around play,
both on sunlit green ovals—as on that first day—
and on the stage, where words he had set down
on paper were given breath by actors obedient to every
direction from the wings. Dictionary
perfect, his grasp of words and of the sinews
of syntax equalled his hunger for sport; he was never to lose
either. Going into town
to attend his play about a one-time
colonial governor, which was staged
in the very building haunted by his subject, walls aged
and stained though built to last,
I watched a river of flying fox flow past.
His humour perplexed academics, yet would chime
with every audience who paid full attention
to the words. Language, and its precise meaning,
was the still centre of all he wrote, in rhyme
or prose alike. In a darkened space, leaning
against a hand-carved sandstone wall, that time,
I was aware of time.
And it should have been, after all, his time
when in his maturity
he proved versatile in every field, from film
and fiction to travel and motoring advice. After the novels, after the cigarettes at the
there should have been something more,
but there was not. Fashion turned against him, although
he had never wanted to be fashionable; he should, even so,
in his full maturity
have been able to enjoy the ripening prime
permitted to others, less worthy, whose day
arrived at the same time.
That was when it should also have been his time.
. . .
Vindication lay in the future for him, he always
was sure, but then the future was devoured
by an unseen antagonist, empowered
through cell-division within the living tissue
of his frame, unseen but known as “Mister C.”;
silently that enemy spread itself
as lichen smothers treetrunks, or algae
darkens a pool, until his state of health
was the only issue.
He was unable to grow old.
Instead, his ageing was compressed, as if scrolled
at speed down a laptop’s flat plastic screen.
Each moment in his life became a scene
played over a backdrop of sunlit green.
At the end he was asking after me.
Each time I emerge, now, from the post office
into the air I sense the empty space
once shaded by laurels. It is the same place
and yet it is not the same. The absence,
never to return, of a friend, can give
the same sensation to those who still must live.