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

Ironing the hankies

I’ve done his shirts. Now I’m on the hankies.
I learnt on these. My mother thought I couldn’t harm
the plain white squares. He had plenty anyway.

First you flatten out and heat away the creases,
then fold in half, do both sides, fold again,
ending with a steaming, neatly cornered wedge.

Clean hankies conjure up his optimistic mornings:
watering the plants before setting off for work
humming with vitality, redolent of soap.

Now there’s not much sense in being optimistic.
All that’s left to hope for – a pain-free, sudden end.
In the meantime I continue ironing the hankies,

pressing all my love into worn white cotton.


©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Understanding 6, 1996


I fell on to the pebbles from his shoulders:
‘Are you all right?’ my first anxious words –
adults had so far to fall. He told my mother
how absurd I was to worry about him. I never
thought how scared he must have been for me.

I couldn’t get my key to turn and kept on struggling,
trying to pretend the lock was only stuck inside my head.
Damp from swimming, tears about to add to all the wet,
I was rescued by a sympathetic mother-type
who led me to the desk to ask for help.
From the corner of my eye I saw him waiting –
his towel rolled up, impatient for his breakfast.
He looked as though he wished I wasn’t born.
When I at length emerged, we drove away in silence.

I saw my first nude men (apart from him)
when he took me to the Everyman in Liverpool –
it wasn’t quite what he expected but we both enjoyed it.
Another time we went to see Jean Brodie, he alone
applauding when a schoolgirl did a handstand.
Zhivago, West Side Story, Zefirelli’s Romeo – I saw them all with him,
fighting back my tears in case he called me Fairy Liquid.

He took me out to eat the night my finals ended.
I knew I’d hear the outcome in the morning, so was distracted
when he handed me the largest cheque he ever had.
He told my mother I didn’t seem very grateful.

He cried into the washing-up.
My sister had explained Mum wouldn’t last another day,
cancer having cleared a path for chest infection.
He’d thought it could go on like this for months.

We stood on platforms facing one another –
me going back to London, he to work.
Both tried to look absorbed in something else.
I wondered how he’d be next time I saw him.
His train came first; he settled by the window –
then we waved at one another, smiling.

I left him in an armchair with his sherry –
I’d turned down having one as well. I’d held his hand
when all the drugs had made him feel peculiar,
pushed him in a wheelchair for a change of view –
he’d hunched up small to negotiate the doorways
for I seemed rather clumsy, as usual with him.
I clothed his swollen feet in baggy socks,
kissed him twice and left, not turning back.


©Virginia Rounding, 1994