Thomas Buddenbrook on the beginning of the end in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks:

Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moves beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished. The last few days I’ve been thinking about a Turkish proverb I read somewhere: ‘When the house is finished, death follows.’ Now, it doesn’t have to be death exactly. But retreat, decline, the beginning of the end. […] I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already. Such external signs need time to reach us, like the light of one of those stars up there, which when it shines most brightly may well have already gone out, for all we know.

More death (and love)

And while we’re on the theme of death and the Great War, here’s Joanna Cannan in High Table:

Look on, Cynic, your dozen years, to the time when such words as these will be explained away as wartime hysteria, when such a marriage as is planned now, in this brief, pink-and-white haven, will be dissolved on the cold grounds of incompatibility – we didn’t realise what we were doing – it was a mad wartime affair. Yet can you be sure that these children of calamity, with their music and their dancing and their Cliquot and their loving, and death not screened and unlikely behind his wreathes and crosses but as everyday a thing as going out and shutting the door, did not see clearer then than now, when the curtain has rung down on their melodrama and risen on a comedy in which they never thought to play? ‘Nothing can take our love from us,’ said Lennie, and aimed his remark at honest and rude death, no need to think of time or change or satiety in those straightforward days.

Seven Ages of Woman

She had a beautiful mother,
serene in a sepia photograph
who cried over every debt;
her father was happy-go-lucky,
a charmer and very bright;
a Methodist grandfather killed himself;
her grandmother’s hair grew down to her knees.

Cycling the three miles to grammar school
in a uniform sizes too large
with a second-hand hockey stick
and fingers chapped from the cold,
she identified flowers by the roadside.
Small round glasses and wrinkled stockings,
her life was all books and the seasons.

She worked as a teacher, then as a secretary,
and on the train from Luton to London
she met a fellow commuter. They loved one another
but for months she wouldn’t take him home –
her sister had a baby and an atmosphere;
he insisted, and after the wedding
they lived in a flat close to Paddington.

She gave her daughters comfort and stability,
caught their floods of words
which rushed from every day.
Best times were half-term shopping in the town,
then cups of tea and reading by the fire.
Eventually they left for work and college:
she never held too tight, but missed them.

Her fellow traveller journeyed on –
he formed a company and she assisted.
Through the days she typed and checked;
at night and in unsettled dawns
lay listening to his plans and fears,
always reassuring, willing his success:
she only turned from him to hide the growing lump.

Disease had spread and held her hostage –
feline cancer seldom lets its victims stray.
For years it failed to mawl her spirit
even when the stick progressed to wheelchair;
only when she couldn’t stir from bed,
jousting pain with ranks of coloured pills,
she said, ‘I hope this won’t go on much longer.’

Her taut neck stretched across the pillow,
face attenuated back to youth,
the ageing woman and the little girl are one.
The curtain descends on seven ages –
invisibly, they take their final bow.
Nurses, importunate ushers, quickly confer
and parcel her up in a sheet.


©Virginia Rounding, 1995

Saying goodbye

The flesh drained back on to the pillow
so his nose poked up surprising, sharp,
a single flower placed beside his head,
below his green-pyjama’d shoulders –
fragile, like a child laid lovingly to sleep.

There were signs his nose had bled –
otherwise he looked tidy and so still.
His eyes were closed, his mouth fixed
wide open in a grimace of false teeth;
his beard neat, the hair above his ears
curlier, more playful than I’d thought.

On Sunday afternoons, a child,
I’d stared so often at his sleeping chest,
convinced the next breath wouldn’t come,
that now I stared again and waited –
unwilling to believe that chest was still forever –
for him to say, ‘Hello, dear – is it tea-time yet?’

Beyond the window I looked out of,
to the outside world opaque,
unknown unknowing people crossed the carpark,
visiting – leaving – friends or relatives,
deliberately jolly, insultingly alive –
as though some other outcome could be theirs.


©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Orbis No.99, Winter 1995

A Dying Song

‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed,
until he was breathless and pumped full of drugs. In the end
his heart couldn’t cope – perhaps it was all for the best.

He carried on working and lived with habitual zest –
tenacious of life, he’d never call illness a friend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

Decked out in his suit for the office, who could have guessed
he was ill, or how ill he was? He didn’t intend
his heart to give up – they say it was all for the best.

Bewildered and hopeful, he underwent all kinds of test –
he was so disappointed to learn that a liver won’t mend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

In the hospice the rabbi said ‘Death is like sailing off west’ –
he made it sound easy, as though one could send
him away with a wave, saying ‘It’s all for the best.’

He battled each phase of disease but wasn’t impressed
by doctors’ vague words – he’d rather they didn’t pretend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed –
his heart couldn’t cope, and I won’t say it’s all for the best.


©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Iota 34, 1996

Memento mori

All you know for certain is you’ll die
and so will all your friends;
you spend your busy life avoiding this,
the only thing you know.

You don’t know how – a slow death
years away, the heart attack tomorrow,
the wasting of disease, a sudden accident,
gunfire in the morning, or just old age.

It’s bound to take you by surprise.
You’ll enter that great loneliness alone –
no matter who stands round your bed
dispensing grapes and misplaced cheer.

You’ll forgive them for their lack of truth,
hear the frightened prayer behind the cliché:
‘Doctors can do amazing things these days …
‘Please find a cure for death before I die.’


©Virginia Rounding, 1994

The Night

When I came to say good-bye that night,
Already you were drifting off
Beyond the realms of speech and sight
Or any common sight. Your cough
At last was silent; eyes half-closed,
Unseeing, yet I knew you heard,
Felt my kiss, without a word
Consented to let go. I dozed,

And slept for half an hour or so –
Awoke to words my sister said:
Come on – Mum died a few minutes ago.
And so we sat beside your bed
To say our last goodnight, and saw
Your thin neck taut and stretched with strain –
But all that gone now, and the pain
Was past, so you would cry no more.

Then while we had a cup of tea
The nurses wrapped you up, so small
And shrivelled, save the swollen knee
Where cancer broke the bone. And all
At once my flesh began to creep:
For in place of my comfortable mother
Was a sharp-nosed shape in white, quite other,
Which frightened me and took away my sleep.


©Virginia Rounding, 1989

First published in  The Eclectic Muse, Vol.4, No.3, Christmas 1994