Royal Festival Hall (Level 5), Southbank Centre, LondonOpen Tuesday - Sunday from 11am to 8pm
Artwork by Paul Peter Piech, 1993. Words by Robert H. Shaffer. © the Estate of Paul Peter Piech
It was the dark bread my mother fed me
to pacify my tears.
When I saw it on the kitchen table
I knew it meant departure.
She’d be slicing it into squares,
loading it with butter as he kissed me: as he
gently unhooked my hands from his neck
and walked out to the car.
She’d be laying it in a brown circle
on the big blue plate
as I watched the Renault rise over the hill.
She’d give it me with warm milk and honey.
The butter thickened in my mouth,
spread itself like wet silk in my throat.
I’d mould each slice into a small lump
until the raisins bled black juices
and my fingertips were slick with grease,
I’d squeeze it like the clay he let me play with:
the stuff we dug from river banks
spiced with bracken, loam and willow bark.
My mother would keep slicing and spreading
until I stopped crying: once I ate a whole loaf.
Now the spices seem too sinister for comfort.
The molasses jars my palette, reminds me
of tar, long roads and car doors slamming.
I do not like the taste of desertion.
Stealing from his mother’s house,
Edward came across a hand-written note
tucked away in a scallop-shell purse, which seemed at first
to be some sort of letter or short story, but here’s what it said:
“As a child, Edward liked to climb trees in the plantation
and make dams in the stream at the foot of the garden,
and once carved a bookmark from a piece of wood.
But right from the very beginning there was an absence in Edward’s life,
a craving emptiness which grew like the black pit of a dilating eye.
Where that void came from neither the teachers nor doctors could say,
except that it was there from the very start,
curled up beside him in his crib, hiding in the grip of his fist,
drinking from the water vapour in his breath.
Nothing could suture that dark, famished wound.
Board games and soft toys, space-hoppers and bikes –
the more it was given the deeper and wider it grew.
All sweetness was rancid on Edward’s tongue.
All handshakes were tentacles, all compliments were veiled threats,
all statements and assessments were worthless confessions
obtained under torture, all care-plans were Byzantine conspiracies of evil intent.
Awake and asleep Edward stalked the battlements alone,
meeting the emissaries of peace with the point of a bayonet,
beading friendship in the crosshairs of suspicion,
scanning the open plane from the watchtower
so as to ride out and beat until dead the first flames of tenderness
or the sparks of love. He is survived by his mother, Eleanor,
from whom he took everything, but who would give it all again
just to let him scream his agonies into her face
or pound his fury into her breast one final time. He left no note.”
Edward opened the wardrobe, which was empty
except for the greatcoat, which slumped towards him
then engulfed him as he hauled it from the rail.
The huge, overburdening coat with its stiff, turf-like cloth,
and the heavy legs of its sleeves, and the triceratops collar
and the mineshaft pockets and the drunken punches of its flailing cuffs.
Through the neat bullet hole in the back, daylight looked distant and pinched,
like the world through a dusty telescope held back-to-front to the eye.
And there Edward wept, crouched in the foxhole,
huddled in a ball under the greatcoat, draped in the flag.
You made handbags out of milk bottle tops
bound in raffia; machined rugs out of rags
and odd balls of wool; sewed cami-knickers
from parachute silk, my first satchel
handkerchiefs from flourbags; cooked up bread poultices
sheepshead brawn; crocheted cuffs and collars;
smocked, pleated, piped; cable and moss stitched.
Cakes though weren’t your forte. You were defter
unspooling golden syrup onto mounds
of bread and marge, doled out slice by slice
or recycling the weekend’s leftovers.
Now, sitting here, turning up trouser legs
apprentice task, I’m aware that even
the names for your skills are exiting Left
out of my head, and the mother tongue,
shop soiled, shop spoiled, we learn to forget.