JOHN FREEMAN: Holiday Reading

I got off lightly compared to many people. There was Eddie in the playground, only nine but with an old face somehow, a straight lipless mouth, sharp features, pale faded skin. His mousey hair, curly but thin, looked as if it had been sprinkled with dust. His grey shorts and socks and jacket – I can’t see him in any other colour, except the black of his shoes – managed to look like rags without actually being rags. He placed his fist on his other palm, fingers stretched towards you. Smell my cheese, he’d say. I’d rather not, thank you. You were supposed to bend and submit to being punched in the face.

On holiday that year by the sea I was walking alone through a street of lofty cream-painted Georgian mansions all big enough to be hotels, utterly deserted, until I came where a group of boys were lounging on the other side, and I was just able to catch the words spoken sotto voce by one to the others, get that kid. I walked faster and ran as they gave chase. I can’t remember how it ended but it can’t have been that bad; perhaps they just stopped, more aware than I was which places were too public to suit them. I was never beaten up. What I remember is those deserted lofty cream houses, with steps going up from the empty street; the sound of that whispered phrase, the confidence with which it was spoken, the way the group contracted like a muscle in silent assent, the way my heart contracted also as I understood they meant me.

Where was I going? To the shop perhaps, or the library. It was just the two of us on that holiday. I remember sitting in that flat, poky and rundown by some standards, with a little electric fire and a bit of glass roofing, but exotic to me. I read a book by Violet Needham with a violet shiny paperback cover, not Riders to the Sea or The Devil Rides Out, but Something Riders or Riders Something. The boy is tested by a group of men. They tell him he must put his hand in the fire. He looks at their faces to see if they mean it, then thrusts his hand suddenly towards the log blaze, but is caught in time by one of the men. Their shout of laughter is friendly, admiring, accepting. Henceforth he is one of them. I never doubted that I would have held my own hand in the flames, if need be, nor that I would be prevented, accepted – I never doubted that I was him and he was me. On the train back to London I was still reading. My mother looked out of the window. There’s a heron, she exclaimed, full of joy and excitement in a way that was characteristic of her in her prime. As she told me ever after, I replied crushingly, so what? The boy’s name, I discover now, was Dick – of course, that’s right; the title of the book was The Black Riders; and the password was fortitude.

John Freeman’s White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems was published by Contraband Books in 2013. Previous collections include A Suite for Summer (Worple Press, Tonbridge, 2007) and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions, 1997). Stride also published a collection of essays, The Less Received: Neglected Modern Poets, in 2000. He taught for many years at Cardiff University.



From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK