Prose from Poetry Magazine

W

Secret vices, brief encounters, and the trail of dead.
Introduction

Where I walk is the town of w, some nine miles south of the city of N, though W consists only of some six streets, unless you include the estates that stretch mostly northward but ever more eastward too, and I cannot help thinking of the old, of whom there are many, gathered in their sheltered housing, with their old names, the same names you see on the war memorial, since this has been a stable community for generations, some of their children and grandchildren still working in the shops, sometimes with their parents as in the case of P, the butcher, whose middle-aged daughters come in Saturdays and are particularly to be seen near Christmas when everyone is ordering turkeys and the queues extend outside the shop . . .

Where I walk is the town of w, some nine miles south of the city of N, though W consists only of some six streets, unless you include the estates that stretch mostly northward but ever more eastward too, and I cannot help thinking of the old, of whom there are many, gathered in their sheltered housing, with their old names, the same names you see on the war memorial, since this has been a stable community for generations, some of their children and grandchildren still working in the shops, sometimes with their parents as in the case of P, the butcher, whose middle-aged daughters come in Saturdays and are particularly to be seen near Christmas when everyone is ordering turkeys and the queues extend outside the shop, which is now without the services of M who had been P’s assistant, both old men at the edge of retirement, M sickly and occasionally grouchy if not glum, with pains and cancers and a bad heart that eventually killed him just a few months ago leaving P with all the work, so that P no longer has time for Ping-Pong, the secret vice of the town of W, there being three divisions of eight teams each in the immediate area of W, P being a vicious spinner of the ball, a leading member of Saints B—Saints A, B, and C as represented in each division (there was the occasion when p invited me to play on the b team that eventually won the league though I only played the once, winning one rubber and losing two, my work taking me to Ireland in that period so I only returned at the end of the season, when I was presented with an individual trophy as the fourth man, or reserve of the team, the presentation in a social club in the neighboring town of H, the evening ending with a disco)—and whenever P sees me or my wife, C, passing his window he mimes a Ping-Pong stroke and I mime back, before passing on to the two computer shops, the two electronics shops, the travel agent (The Global Booking Agency), the optician (Cecil B. Amey), the sad gift shop selling trade reject stationery where the lonely and simple go to talk to the melancholy owner who on quiet days is to be seen playing his guitar behind the counter, his glasses as sad as his mild face that always wears a clouded look, the clouds never completely shifting, except occasionally when he has to help a customer use his photocopier (more elderly people, taking copies of wills, deeds, receipts, generally following the trails of the dead), but my walk continues past them, past the jewelry shop and the shop with its cutesy figurines and medallions that remind me of the china shepherdesses and lace doilies that once filled the bourgeois apartments of the elderly in communist Budapest, then the paper shop with its jowly women, the supermarket with its slow-speaking, slow-thinking male checkout and the very old woman who has practically no voice left and is sprouting hair everywhere, hanging silently on to life by what appears a very thin thread, and the banks and the cheap supermarket, and the seventeenth-century market cross on stilts under which the kids hang around in the evenings, with chips from the chippie or a kebab from the Kurdish take-away, the owner of which, a short friendly man, once asked if I would take him on for English lessons, though he has now opened a kebab and burger and fried chicken shop farther down the same street, while on Friday and Saturday nights the criminal and would-be criminal gather outside his original shop as the police circle in their cars, on one occasion taking a gangling blond man away, his hands cuffed behind his back, past the vet’s surgery with its window-display of one large plastic model flea and an equally large model louse, dangling on a string like something out of Kafka or the Insect Play, the images indicating and reminding us of our enemies; and then, moving out beyond the town, across the old highway, towards the railway station where d the owner keeps a piano showroom (he tunes pianos too) as well as the Brief Encounter restaurant crowded with stills of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson and other memorabilia—posters, metal plates, tickets, menus, maps, and press notices—so there you might stand on the c-bound platform under the hanging basket of flowers and the memorial to the railwayman killed on the track in an accident some twenty years ago, looking up at the newly-installed electronic signal that tells you whether a train is late, but if you went on beyond the railway station into the fields and lanes, the England of bicycles and hedgerows, it is almost as if the Great War had never happened, or, if you walked back down by the twelve-mile river, past the ruined abbey from whose tower the body of the hanged rebel William Kett dangled by the neck in 1549, and everywhere, every yard, foot, and inch, trodden over by the makers of the landscape, you would find their feet under your feet, even now as a great cloud, a seeping, darkening grey, plump with rain, climbs up over the horizon and the first drops begin to fall.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2009

George Szirtes was born in Hungary and emigrated to England with his parents—survivors of concentration and labor camps—after the 1956 Budapest uprising. Szirtes studied painting at Harrow School of Art and Leeds College of Art and Design. At Leeds he studied with Martin Bell, who encouraged Szirtes as he...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In