It’s back again, the how of rain
pleating off leaky roans, binding
strands that curve down stanks, curl
by high-walled wynds and dreels,
past sweetie shops with one faint bulb,
bell faltering as the pinnied widow
shuffles through from her back room –
What can I do for you the day?
She hands me now
no Galaxy or Bounty Bar
but a kindly, weary face, smear
of lipstick for her public, the groove
tartan slippers wore in linoleum
from sitting-room to counter, over thirty years:
the lost fact of her existence.
Currents ravel past the draper’s
where Mr Duncan and his unspeaking sister
sort shirts by collar size, set out
Mason’s cuff links and next season’s vests;
on stiff white cards their flowing pens
price elastic, Brylcreem, dark tartan braces.
Floods tangle, splice, uncoil
down Rodger Street, past bank and tearoom,
the dodgy garage where they sold airguns to anyone,
the steamed-up window of the ‘Royal’
where fires warms the bums of men who like
to drink standing, bunnets jammed down tight.
At Shore Street the rain-river
leaps the pavement, scours a channel
through pongy weed behind the sea wall
where damp frocks shiver under umbrellas
by the market cross, waiting for their lucky day
or at least the bus to Leven –
which won’t come for ages, because it’s Sunday.
In the hours between Stingray and the evening meal,
when the strings of family, place and history
working us, are all too bleeding visible,
as gutters burst the adolescent wonders
whether to have a quick one or read French poetry.
Smouldering with solitude, the prince of boredom
stands at the window, watching rain,
wondering when life ends, or will finally begin.
Fall, flow ache.
By those cramped streets, the kenned wynds,
loans, closes, byways, dreels,
the dying shops, fishermen’s damp houses
with empty sail lofts, broken pantiles,
wash-houses not ready for witty conversion;
by the constricting, cherished dreichness of our town
whose high tide had ebbed before ours began;
by the draper with its yellow blinds pulled down,
the angle of a bent streetlamp,
the budgie cage in old Jeanie’s window;
by the secret path behind the allotment,
the steep slalom of Burial Brae,
the short-cuts, the dank kirks and graveyards –
by these details we did not know we loved,
we grew up provincial, in the heart of the world.
You are standing at the bedroom window
watching rain, homework abandoned on the desk.
The parents are somewhere unimportant,
wee brother plays keepie-uppie in the gloom –
time to belt the shorty raincoat, go
in search of nothing but the life to come.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. 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 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
This lengthy poem, in two parts, conjures a Fife childhood, Anstruther in the 1960s. The first half is a simply told description of the town at the time, and the pleasures (or more likely its opposites) of growing up, or old, there. In the latter section, the tone shifts to something more bittersweet, the imagery more condensed and rich, as a memory of a teenage encounter is replayed.
After the family house in Anstruther was sold I went back to the East Neuk far less, and thought about it far more. This gave rise to a number of Fife poems in my latest collection As Though We Were Flying. The opening image jumped into my head – the overflowing gutter, the water entwined, the on-fire-with-boredom arousal of adolescence. I followed the stream through Anster c. 1967. It was like watching a film unspool, and then ‘Holly’ jumped into frame. It reads like an overture, the opening of something much longer, the tragi-comedy of growing up provincial at the heart of the world. I loved it, I miss it, the place and time that in many ways made me. In the end ‘Wynd’ is an elegy and summoning of a time at once personal and epoch-defining.