When my granddad died, I wanted to write something for him, but couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come. When we took the train to Newcastle to scatter his ashes in the Tyne, I wanted to say something, but couldn’t. This weekend I was looking through old photographs, and I remembered him telling me a story about when he was 15 and he began work at the rope factory. He lived in Byker and had to get a boat in the morning across the river. Benny the boatman would row him across. As a kid, the idea of having to get a boat to work was brilliant. Though my Nanna was from Gorton, Manchester, they lived together in Newcastle briefly. Conditions were atrocious, though. Infant mortality rates were high and they lost two girls. They had to leave Newcastle behind and came to Manchester.I remember he always had a picture of the Tyne, though. He must have thought about it a lot. He had the quiet dignity of a man removed from his home. When we returned with his ashes, we scattered them by the part of the river where Benny had rowed him across, years before.
My mum was very close to my granddad and this as much a poem for her as it is for him.
Where You Are (In Memoriam: Robert Stuart 1924-2012)
You are fifteen and it’s February,
the boatman rows you to the rope factory.
I know it’s cold, he says,
but when the sun spills through
the Tyne turns gold.
And it does.
You are twenty-one and it’s June,
you are walking by the river in a demob suit
and your fingers curl in the hand of a girl
you will marry when you’ve saved for a ring.
You are thirty, September,
you are watching your daughter’s
fingers unfurl, you remember the girls,
light as a bird.
A Manchester train, a job making planes,
from a rented room to a rented house,
a borrowed suitcase and a family
And dreams of things like holidays,
in technicolour, a room with a view,
You are watching your daughter run in a field,
you look up to see a bird leave the trees
and the sun paints its underwing
as it moves behind factories
for the sea.
A retirement watch,
an empty chair,
a framed wedding photograph.
And we’re here
at the end of a rope of years,
the boatman has long gone;
and as we’re saying goodbye
the sunlight dies
though the river
for a moment turns gold.