It is VE Night, Tobermory.
Cottages blaze and shimmer in the mirror of the bay.
Light is necklaced everywhere,
on the cross-trees of destroyers,
on the hulls of every cockleshell and scalloper afloat,
even on the gutted snout of a U-Boat,
but there are shadows, to imagine
the black and frozen water
and the land, lonely of men,
from Sunart to Mers-El-Kebir.
Daisy chained by sailors, three WAAFs
pose for a photograph.
Her friends are grinning, wide-eyed,
but my mother’s smile is dying
and she’s turned away
to the sound of the waves,
as if she could sense my father,
whose war would never cease,
limping inexorably back to her
across the oil scarred sea.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2006 was Janice Galloway.
I could have picked almost any poem from this collection, but with a tussle chose only one. The sense of unspoken menace and pity amid joy, the perfectly snapped WAAFs are timelessly haunting.
My mother always claimed to 'have entertained the Polish navy' in Tobermory on VE Night, but then she claimed to have been dropped by parachute behind German lines also, so I didn't really take her seriously (though she did produce a parachute from the cupboard once). Some years ago I came across an exhibition of 'Mull during World War 2' and by chance found a photograph of her and some mates on the Esplanade in Tobermory and she didn't appear to be enjoying herself at all. The fact she was looking in the other direction made me think of linking in the fact that at that approximate time my father to be, and her husband to be, was making his slow way home having been very badly injured in the desert and having suffered trauma which was to leave a big mark on him (and the rest of us) for good.
I have written a lot about my parents. This is just one in a series of poems exploring the tragedy of lives directly and indirectly ruined by war. The sister piece to this 'A Curse on Sister Owens' explores the family legend that my mother had in the war got off with a much more attractive proposition, a French fighter pilot (she was a cosmopolitan woman), and had sent a letter to my father chucking him. This letter reached him when he was at death's door, having stood on a land mine, and the Sister at the Hospital sent it back unread by him, and with a tart little note of her own. In great guilt she then married him with the apocalypse of genes that then ensued.
This poem appeared in After the Storm, a small collection which was published as a result of being a winner of the Smith/Doorstep Poetry Competition 2005.