The invitation came out of
the blue: neatly printed vellum,
a colourful Advent scene,
address embossed in gold,
top right, the kind of thing
you see in any Sunday magazine.
To me they were just the couple
six doors down - the sort you hide
from at parties: middle aged stop-at-homes
banged up since god knows when, probably
browned off with life like the rest of us
behind half-net curtains,porch,and garden gnomes.
I went along all the same, to mine
some gossip. My gran always said the quiet
ones had the most to hide
so I gave the place the once-over, checked
for clues, found nothing - just prints, assorted
brasswear, a golfing trophy he paraded with pride.
Their intentions eluded me. We sat
for an hour or more, smiling,
making idle chit-chat
for what reason I couldn't tell -
curiosity ? A favour ? Their interest,
so perfunctory, concealed much more than that;
He deferential in my presence,
content to stare, examine, refusing
to lead the conversation;
She, frail and flustered, avoiding
my eyes, yet catering to my every whim
without a hint of consternation.
This Christmas call would have come and gone,
been relegated to some unholy backwater along
with all those other puzzled episodes we encounter in life
and remembered thus: a kindly, sweet,
semi-detatched egg once made me an offering
with the help of his wife,
were it not for the bouquet, dried
and blemished with age, hanging above
the fireplace by the slenderest thread
each petal mottled, tinted brown, a skeletal
imprint of once-soft flesh, a decade ago ablaze
with yellows, pinks, greens, vermilion red.
Enshrined in the centre was a photograph,
a young lad in uniform, stiffly positioned,
wearing startched regimental trim
on a barren training ground. The passing-out
crowd had disappeared, leaving him alone: an
uneasy truce raged without and within.
The call was not for me. How helpless
we are when we cling, claw, shed tears
for those we lose -
for an hour at Christmas my neighbours
entertained the past and I stepped into
another's empty shoes.
A pale imitation for such grief -
the same weight and height, perhaps,
but, in the end, foreign flesh on foreign bones
yet they stood waving as I left their house,
concealed behind half-net curtains,
porch and garden gnomes.