mum went into labour
on the 28th december
but I wasn’t born until
three minutes past midnight
on the 29th
he wanted the day to himself
the midwife said
three minutes past midnight?
that’s suspiciously precise
what? was the midwife
cheering on the crowning head
from the side of the bed?
and what counts as born?
when you back-heel
when the cord
the certificate says
not the 28th
what’s a few hours
in this great daisy chain
of life on earth?
dad was begat
some things you hold on to
some you forget
and now dad’s dead
head or feet first
into the abyss
I must confess
I’m not entirely sure
all that is clear
is that I’m still here
wondering where the rhyme is
checking what the time is
Jack is sitting at the kitchen table, the bright morning sunshine intensifying the yellows and greens of his tracksuit, and the silvery lustre of his magnificent, Edwardian, handlebar moustache.
‘You don’t look ninety-five’ I tell him. ‘If you’d have said seventy-five, maybe’
‘Who do I make the cheque out to?’ he asks, then takes a sip of tea. ‘No – really – that’s most awfully kind of you to say so,’ he adds, carefully sweeping his moustache for drips, once to the left and once to the right.
There’s a helium balloon tied to the corner of his chair.
‘Happy Birthday for the other day!’ I tell him.
‘Thank you,’ says Jack, closing his eyes and nodding. ‘D’you know – the funny thing is – I never really celebrated birthdays. They used to pass me by, quite unnoticed.’
‘That’s a shame’
‘It just never seemed that important to me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve reached this preposterous age. I lost track of how old I was sometime around thirty.’
‘Well – whatever the reason, I’m very impressed. I hope I’m as good when I get to ninety-five. If I ever do.’
‘Oh – you’ll be fine,’ he says, finishing off the tea and wiping his moustache again. ‘Of course, there are no guarantees.’
‘Did you score any good presents?’
‘Do you know I can’t remember!’ he says, then folds his arms and leans back. ‘I tell you one birthday present I do remember, though. The best one I ever had. No doubt you’ll think me quite daft.’
‘What was it?’
‘It was nineteen-forty one. I was eighteen or thereabouts. On a warship somewhere in the Atlantic. Well – one of the chaps got wind of the fact it was my birthday. Why didn’t you tell us he said. We’d have made a fuss. And he hurried off. The next thing I knew, he’d come back with an enormous tin of plums. Greengages, in syrup. He’d been to the kitchen, you see, and made a fuss about it being my birthday and so on, and that’s all they had spare. So we took the plums up on deck, to the sunniest spot we could find. And we sat down and we ate them with our fingers, one after the other. It doesn’t sound like much, but it meant the world to me.’
‘I like plums.’
‘Yes, well, there were rather a lot,’ he says. ‘You’d have been alright.’
‘That reminds me of a story about my Uncle John,’ I tell him. ‘He’d been fighting in Italy when he got captured and thrown in a POW camp.’
‘That’s a shame’ says Jack. ‘Was he a marine?’
‘No. Regular army. Anyway, the story goes he escaped from the camp and fought with the partisans.’
‘Yeah – but the thing is, when I asked Auntie Ollie about it, she said that wasn’t what happened at all. She said he shacked up with a farmer’s daughter and finished the war picking peaches. It’s a shame I don’t get the chance to see her more often. She’s all the way down in Exmouth.’
Jack looks startled.
‘I heard the exact same story!’
‘Yes! My wife comes from Devon. One of those villages where you can’t walk five paces without bumping into a second cousin or what have you. Now, Rachel’s brother – one of her brothers – he disappeared in the war and they all thought the worst. But then he turned up in the Woolpack with nothing more than a grin and a pocket full of peach pits.’
Jack strokes his moustache, then slaps the table.
‘I’ll bet you a pound to a pinch of snuff it was the same farm!’ he says.