you tell me

Charles, sleeping in a wing-backed chair
kippering by a two-bar heater
trousers sliding south,
hernia through an open shirt
like a burr on an ancient beech
or the head of an imp
in a breast-feeding nightmare
What d’you want? he says
his one good eye suddenly wide
like I tripped a wire somewhere
‘Sorry to wake you, Charles’
Hmmm he says, backing into his beard.
‘I won’t keep you long’
The room – oh! The room!
The room is a cliche of neglect
peeling paper – check
seamy bedclothes – uh-huh
everywhere that slow, sad laying-in of time.
Charles won’t agree to a thing, of course
not a temperature check,
pulse count or blood pressure
so I retreat to a plate
of tea and toast
and inconsequential chat
hoping that one word
will follow another
into something like acceptance
‘What did you do before you retired?’
handing him the mug
What do you mean?
‘You know. What work did you do?’
What work?
‘Before you retired?’
He lowers his face to the mug
and gabbles at the lip
like a goat invoking a curse
then, lowering it unsteadily again
to rest on the pate of his hernia,
he fixes me with that eye,
that furious, shining, ineluctable eye
I’m ninety-five! he shouts
You tell me!

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