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A Letter from the Old Guard

for Irene Worth

From a palm-stirred province of the Antilles,
a veteran dips his nib in sea-blue ink

to commemorate the ferocity of the Ghurkas
and his own Regiment lost in the blowing hills

of the Sudan; he hears the chink-a-chink
of brass and cymbals, when the crowd’s outcry

kept the pigeons circling Picadilly Circus—
the passing pride of Alexander’s eye.

Now, in the wake of peace for forty years,
waves lift Hyde Park, a statue like a ship

sails on the leaves; it is that surf he hears,
a tongue of surf moistening his upper lip,

then writes:
‘Ladies, I saw you on your balcony
on Brazil Street, the sunset rouged your cheek

and it touched me. Please, I don’t want money,
but is Remembrance Day, and all this week

I thought, as, doubtless, you, about the war,
two widowed sisters in the same white collar

as your lace balcony facing Columbus Square,
where, as a Sea-Scout on Empire Day,

I saw you, with your hair cut differently,
under cream Leghorn hats; you were both fair

and rosy then, Bulwen was Administrator,
a jug-cheek Welshman, but nobody didn’t mind.

It comes so clearly I can see the wind
russling the plumes of the four Royal Palms,

I hear a silver music when the fountain
splash all our cheeks in silence, when

the Sergeant-Major’s shout frighten the mountain
as six-hundred boots as one Presented Arms,

as the flag fold from the four points of the Empire,
and Bulwen read a passage from the Psalms:

“I will look to the hills…” in sun, in rain,
our hair is ashes, but our hearts is fire.

I never passed under your high verandah
as a boy. Town had its special Precincts,

but I enlist, and I can tell you, I pass under
heavy mortar fire; I have seen the Sphinx

resting both palms in patience on the sands;
I know that both you ladies lost your husbands

fighting Rommel, but the small flowers that come
out of the sand is soldiers’ hearts, a sea

of sand was my own Regiment’s home,
bless Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery

and bless them all, The Mall, the brass and crimson
of The Horse Guards, I was twelve years of age

when Edward abdicate for Mrs. Simpson,
and even today, I can recall my rage.

I served with Lord Alexander in the Sudan,
I know his batman, I am now a night-watchman.

Then we get Independence all of a sudden,
and something went. We can’t run anything

we black people. So far, I have not found one
I would trust. I soldiered for my King

and island. My hands have arthritis,
but they rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,

just like the Ghurkas. What ferocious blighters!
But we was good as them. Now I must pause,

because from my pen’s eye has dropped a tear.
Forgive the blot as you forget the writer’s

name. Let me remain, ladies, secretly yours….’
Then tears the letter up, as sovereign years

retouch a goblet from brass-bright Benares
and Vigie Barracks, in the exaggerated light

of the Raj, darkening like a teak-cabinet
and the palms’ night surf and a cold supper set

under a brass-buttoned postcard of the Pier
at Brighton when our wars were happier.

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