(for Leslie McGuire)
The boy is ten and today it is his birthday.
Behind him on the lawn
his mother and his little sister
unfurl a rainbow crayoned big and bright
on a roll of old wallpaper.
His father, big-eyed, mock-solemn, pantomimes ceremony
as he lights the ten candles on the cake.
Inside her living-room
his grandmother puts her open palm to the window.
Out in the garden, her grandson
reaches up, mirrors her, stretching fingers
and they smile and smile as if they touched
warm flesh not cold glass.
More than forty thousand years ago
men or women splayed their fingers thus
and put their hands to bare rock, they
chewed ochre, red-ochre, gritted charcoal and blew,
blew with projectile effort that really took it out of them,
their living breath. Raw gouts of pigment
spattered the living stencil
that was each’s own living hand
and made their mark.
The space of absence
was the clean, stark picture of their presence
and it pleased them.
We do not know why they did it
and maybe they did not either but
they knew they must.
It was the cold cave wall
and they knew they were up against it.
The birthday boy is juggling.
He has been spending time in the lockdown learning
but though he still can’t keep it up for long
his grandmother dumb-shows most extravagant applause.
She toasts them all in tea
from her Best Granny in the World mug, winking
and licking her lips ecstatically as they cut the cake,
miming hunger, miming prayer
for her hunger to be sated.
The slim girl dances and her grandmother claps
and claps again, blinking tears.
Another matched high-five at her window.
Neither the blown candles or the blown kisses
will leave any permanent mark
– unless love does? —
on them on this the only afternoon
they will be all alive together on just this day the boy is ten.
Glasgow, Scotland. April 2020