CENTRE AND RETREAT
The extended family has gathered for Christmas in a rented house in Sussex. The day after our arrival we go into the town to get some provisions. There are lots of people out shopping, delicatessens and other high-end food shops. It’s a strangely homogenous population, and looming over them all, on its hilltop, broods the Castle. One imagines all these people milling about down here to be a captive population kept on a sort of reservation, pacified with plenty of different sorts of cheese.
Back at the house the owner is a half-benevolent, half-threatening presence. The building, Tudor with later accretions and all on different levels, is a puzzle of brick and flint. Beams poking out from plastered walls that have split, are bolted and propped, and the wood has turned to something like iron.
Temptation of locked cupboards. A stuffed owl inside a glass case. . . . . Note contents of the drawer in a nondescript table on the upstairs landing: one Allen key, one Stella Artois label, one phone plug, a clothes peg, some paper clips, a table tennis net and clamps, and one book: ‘The Celestine Prophecy’. In addition, and related presumably to this book, there are fliers advertising the house as a Retreat. Elsewhere in the house there are references to a massage and well-being facility in Hove under the same management.
Downstairs the ‘Visitors’ Book’ looks as if it has been censored, with a half-page roughly torn out presumably because it contained unacceptable comments.
The kitchen is filled with puzzling equipment and hight up on a shelf there’s a notice that reads Nothing On This Shelf Works.
The notices are everywhere: This beautiful house is quite unique and is very much loved by its owners please look after it, respect it and enjoy it during your stay! Many thanks. And Due to its antiquity this loo works rather slowly! The cistern takes time to refill between flushes so you need to allow at least 3-4 minutes between pulls! There are bins provided for everything else! Note strategic deployment of the exclamation mark, half command, half semi-humorous entreaty.
Sorry this bidet is bust! Please do not attempt to use it.
. . .
A walk, across chartered fields
Delights of Sussex mist
No unauthorised person beyond this point.
This bleak burden of authority,
It settles across the shoulders
Like a stress headache.
Back in the ruined garden
In late afternoon sunlight
And the cautious emprise of moss
Is it the last of England?
This decline –
It’s been going on for so long.
An idea still reached for
It comes back all the time
As if it never really left you
And now it arrives, like a piece
Of slow and half-successful music.
Back in the house
‘A couple of million to spend on it’ someone sighs.
Converted to a ‘Centre and Retreat’
The shelves groan with self-help books.
Did your life have an idea
Like the Visitors Book
To be signed for on departure?
But we’ve just had a message:
‘The owner’s in A and E,
Heart flutter, irregular rhythms.
They might shock her tonight’.
The owner just about holding on,
Tentative yet persistent.
THE CITIZEN UNHARMED
Look, here they come –
The Department of Wishful Thinking
Blowing on their quaint instruments
With major new initiatives
And that dog? It’s not the owner’s fault.
But taking a stroll through history
A respectable citizen need not fear.
This freedom is everything he pays for.
Nursing an ache he rests in the arms of authority.
It’s something that reaches all the way down
And automatic as the cashpoint’s greeting
Where, grinning with numbers, it levels its emptying stare.
Back at home, behind the houses
These stately Victorian trees, he’s lost in their quiet
Brushing up on his intentions –
And that invisible part of him, how it aches.
Copyright © John Welch 2016
In 1975 John Welch founded The Many Press, a poetry publisher which over the next 20 years published many books, pamphlets and broadsheets. His Collected Poems, bringing together work from over 30 years, and a memoir, Dreaming Arrival, were both published by Shearsman in 2008; titles since then are Visiting Exile and Its Halting Measure. One of his poems appeared in Molly Bloom 2.