It was their first time, their first time ever. Of course neither would admit to it, and neither knew, about the other that is, that they had never done this before. Life had sheltered them, and they had sheltered from life.
Their biographies put them in their sixties. Never mind the Guardian magazine proclaiming sixty to be the new fifty. Albert and Sally were resolutely sixty – ish. To be fair, neither looked their age, but then they had led such sheltered lives, hadn’t they. He had a mother, she had a father, and that pretty much wrapped it up. They had spent respective lives being their parents’ companions, then carers, and now, suddenly this. This intimacy, and it being their first time.
When their contemporaries were befriending and marrying and procreating, and home-making and care-giving and child-minding, and developing their first career, being forced to start a second, overseeing teenagers and suddenly being parents again, but grandparents this time – with evenings and some weekends allowed – Albert and Sally had spent their time writing. They wrote poetry in their respective spaces, at respective tables, in almost solitude, Sally against the onslaught of TV noise as her father became deaf. Albert had the refuge of his childhood bedroom and the table he’d studied at – O levels, A levels, a degree and a further degree, and a little later on that PhD. Poetry had been his friend, his constant companion, rarely fickle, always there when needed. If Albert met a nice-looking woman in the library and lost his heart to her, he would write verse to quench not so much desire of a physical nature, but a desire to meet and to know and to love, and to live the dream of being a published poet.
Oh Sally, such a treasure; a kind heart, a sweet nature, a lovely disposition. Confused at just seventeen when suddenly she seemed to mature, properly, when school friends had been through all that at thirteen. She was passed over, and then suddenly, her body became something she could hardly deal with, and shyness enveloped her because her mother would say such things . . . but, but she had her bookshelf, her grandfather’s, and his books (Keats and Wordsworth saved from the skip) and then her books. Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas (oh to have been Kaitlin, so wild and free and uninhibited and whose mother didn’t care), Stevie Smith, U.E. Fanthorpe, and then, having taken her OU degree, the lure of the small presses and the feminist canon, the subversive and the down-right weird.
Albert and Sally knew the comfort of settling ageing parents for the night and opening (and firmly closing) the respective doors of their own rooms, in Albert’s case his bedroom, with Sally, a box room in which her mother had once kept her sewing machine. Sally resolutely did not sew, nor did she knit. She wrote, constantly, in notebook after notebook, in old diaries, on discarded paper from the office of the charity she worked for. Always in conversation with herself as she moulded the poem, draft after draft after draft. And then? She went once to writers’ workshop at the local library, but never again. Who were these strange people who wrote only about themselves? Confessional poets. And she? Did she never write about herself? Well, occasionally, out of frustration sometimes, to remind herself she was a woman, who had not married, had not borne children, had only her father’s friends (who tried to force their unmarried sons on her). She did write a long sequence of poems (in bouts-rimés) about the man she imagined she would meet one day and how life might be, and of course would never be. No, Sally, mostly wrote about things, the mystery and beauty and wonder of things you could touch, see or hear, not imagine or feel for. She wrote about poppies in a field, penguins in a painting (Birmingham Art Gallery), the seashore (one glorious week in North Norfolk twenty years ago – and she could still close her eyes and be there on Holkham beach). Publication? Her first collection went the rounds and was returned, or not, as is the wont of publishers. There was one comment: keep writing. She had kept writing.
The sea had given its all to the land
and retreated to a far distant curve.
I stand where the waves once broke.
Only the marks remain of its coming,
its going. The underlying sand at my feet
is a desert of dunes seen from the air.
Beyond the wet strand lies, a vast mirror
to a sky laundered full of haze, full of blue,
rinsed distances and shining clouds.
When Albert entered his bedroom he drew the curtains, even on a summer’s evening when still light. He turned on his CD player choosing Mozart, or Bach, sometimes Debussy. Those three masters of the piano were his favoured companions in the act of writing. He would and did listen to other music, but he had to listen with attention, not have music ‘on’ as a background. That Mozart Rondo in A minor K511, usually the first piece he would listen to, was a recording of Andras Schiff from a concert at the Edinburgh Festival. You could hear the atmosphere of a capacity audience, such a quietness that the music seemed to feed and enter and then surround and become wondrous.
He’d had a history teacher in his VI form years who allowed him the run of his LP collection. It had been revelation after revelation, and that had been when the poetry began. They had listened to Tristan & Isolde into the early hours. It was late June, A levels over, a small celebration with Wagner, a bottle of champagne and a bowl of cherries. As the final disc ended they had sat in silence for – he could not remember how long, only from his deeply comfortable chair he had watched the sky turn and turn lighter over the tall pine trees outside. And then, his dear teacher, his one true friend, a young man only a few years out of Cambridge, rose and went to his record collection and chose The Third Symphony by Vaughan-Williams, his Pastoral Symphony, his farewell to those fallen in the Great War – so many friends and music-makers. As the second movement began Albert wept, and left abruptly, without the thanks his teacher deserved. He went home, to the fury of his father who imagined Albert had been propositioned and assaulted by his kind teacher – and would personally see to it that he would never teach again. Albert was so shocked at this declaration he barely ever spoke to his father again. By eight o’clock that June morning he was a poet.
A sea voyage in the arms of Iseult
and now the bowl of cherries
is empty and the Perrier Jouet
just a stain on the glass.
Dawn is a mottled sky
resting above the dark pines.
Late June and roses glimmer
in a deep sea of green.
In the still near darkness,
and with the volume low,
we listen to an afterword:
a Pastoral Symphony for the fallen.
From its opening I know I belong
to this music and it belongs to me.
Wholly. It whelms me over
and my face is wet with tears.
There is so much to a name, Sally thought, Albert, a name from the Victorian era. In the 1950s whoever named their first born Albert? Now Sally, that was very fifties, comfortably post-war. It was a bright and breezy, summer holiday kind of name. Saying it made you smile (try it). But Light-foot (with a hyphen) she could do without, and had hoped to be without it one day. She was not light-footed despite being slim and well proportioned. Her feet were too big and she did not move gracefully. Clothes had always been such a nuisance; an indicator of uncertainty, of indecision. Clothes said who you were, and she was? a tallish woman who hid her still firm shape and good legs in loose tops and not quite right linen trousers (from M & S). Hair? Still a colour, not yet grey, she was a shale blond with grey eyes. She had felt Albert’s ‘look’ when they met in The Barton, when they had been gathered together like show dogs by the wonderful, bubbly (I know exactly what to wear – and say) Annabel. They had arrived at Totnes by the same train and had not given each other a second glance on the platform. Too apprehensive, scared really, of what was to come. But now, like show dogs, they looked each other over.
‘This is an experiment for us,’ said the festival director, ‘New voices, but from a generation so seldom represented here as ‘emerging’, don’t you think?’
You mean, thought Albert, it’s all a bit quaint this being published and winning prizes for the first time – in your sixties. Sally was somewhere else altogether, wondering if she really could bring off the vocal character of a Palestinian woman she was to give voice to in her poem about Ramallah.
Incredibly, Albert or Sally had never read their poems to an audience, and here they were, about to enter Dartington’s Great Hall, with its banners and vast fireplace, to read their work to ‘a capacity audience’ (according to Annabel – all the tickets went weeks ago). What were Carcanet thinking about asking them to be ‘visible’ at this seriously serious event? Annabel parroted on and on about who’d stood on this stage before them in previous years, and there was such interest in their work, both winning prizes The Forward and The Eliot. Yet these fledgling authors had remained stoically silent as approaches from literary journalists took them almost daily by surprise. Wanting to know their backstory. Why so long a wait for recognition? Neither had sought it. Neither had wanted it. Or rather they’d stopped hoping for it until . . . well that was a story all of its own, and not to be told here.
Curiosity had beckoned both of them to read each other’s work. Sally remembered Taking Heart arriving in its Amazon envelope. She brought it to her writing desk and carefully opened it. On the back cover it said Albert Loosestrife is a lecturer in History at the University of Northumberland. Inside, there was a life, and Sally had learnt to read between the lines. Albert had seen Sally’s slim volume Surface and Depth in Blackwell’s. It seemed so slight, the poems so short, but when he got on the Metro to Whitesands Bay and opened the bag he read and became mesmerised. Instead of going home he had walked down to the front, to his favourite bench with the lighthouse on his left and read it through, twice.
Standing in the dark hallway ready to be summoned to read Albert took out his running order from his jacket pocket, flawlessly typed on his Elite portable typewriter (a 21st birthday present from his mother). He saw the titles and wondered if his voice could give voice to these intensely personal poems: the horror of his mother’s illness and demise, his loneliness, his fear of being gay, the nastiness and bullying experienced in his minor university post, his observations of acquaintances and complete strangers, train rides to distant cities to ‘gather’ material, visit to galleries and museums, homages to authors, artists and composers he loved. His voice echoed in his head. Could he manage the microphone? Would the after-reading discussion be bearable? He looked at Sally thinking for a moment he could not be in better company. Her very name cheered him. Somehow names could do that. He imagined her walking on a beach with him, in conversation. Yes, he’d like that, and right now. He reckoned they might have much to share with each other, after they’d discussed poetry of course. He felt a warm glow and smiled his best smile as she in astonishing synchronicity smiled at him. The door opened and applause beckoned.