Orphan poems (10)

Although I wrote this in June 2005, during which I seem to have written about sixty poems, this one is a little different. And it’s based on somthing that happened to me in about 1988. A year earlier, I had given in, and had a package holiday for the first time: in Crete, near Chania, which is on the north-west edge of the island. They were offering 10% off if you re-booked the same place within a fortnight of return, so that’s what we did.

The second year, the building work had increased dramatically, so that quite a pretty beach was rather more crowded at its edge with those half-finished, untaxable holiday apartments, and there was more rubble in the sea itself. A tour guide warned us that swimming in the sea (or paddling vigorously in my case) would be dangerous if the tide was rough. The owner of the apartments where we stayed (on the beach-front) pointed to a narrow strip in front of his plot. ‘Here,’ he insisted, ‘no problem.’ And ‘there and there’ – i.e. to the left and right of his plot – ‘problem’. So, as long as we swam in the strip of sea in line with his buildings, we were okay …

One lunchtime, a local man went in, had a swim, met a piece of rubble, was knocked unconscious, and drowned. They carried his body to the sand, and laid it there, after some futile attempts at resuscitation. The body looked for all the world like a sun-bather. The ambulance took a long time. And so the holiday-makers, including children, just got on with their games. It was quite, quite surreal (to the extent that I almost feel I’ve invented the story, which I haven’t).

I wonder if I haven’t missed the chance to work on this more. It depends perhaps too heavily on what happened, right down to the Scots doctor (although how would a reader know that?). It may be, as with much life writing in poetry, that my visual image is so strong that I can’t see that I’m not communicating it properly.

On a beach near Chania

Did I mention he was dead?
Later, then. All right: a man
stretches on the sand

like a short holiday.
It looks like he’s forgotten
to cover his face

with a handkerchief: he’ll
regret it. The sun, jammy, is
berating the beach,

and, hard on his heels,
two kids are selling drachma
to the Calippo bloke.

My son is playing siesta
with headphones. A man
warms his back

on a tongue of towel.
His moustache is trim. He swims
with all the elegance

of an elderly gigolo.
The tide, like a brochure,
disguises the concrete

debris under the current,
but that’s okay. The Scots
doctor, who drinks

only the best metaxa,
stops for a chat. “I can
tell you,” he says

candidly, “what he’d just
been eating. It was
a wedge of watermelon.”


You can hear the poem here:


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