A single cornflake in Vienna.
Brittle dark-gold henna.
Returned from England, her teacher
gave the class one each.
She remembered how it tasted
when, ten years later, she fled
a raft of racial laws
against the Jews,
and came to England.
One suitcase heavy in both hands.
Her father had been President
of the Österreichischer Fußball-Bund.
In Oxford, she was a nursery maid,
grateful to work for food and board.
After the war, she married Humphries,
older, a dentist, with open eyes.
It wasn’t a love match.
All that was Quatsch.
Two sons later,
no longer slender,
she metamorphosed into a matron,
a widow with a bungee-jump bosom.
I remember her, fearless,
in a bouncing sleeveless dress
and burly sandals,
facing down a vandal,
a skinhead in the University Parks,
tearing the bark
off a sapling. A mountain ash.
She ran to him across the grass.
“You mustn’t. Don’t be silly.
If you do that, you’ll kill it.”
As if he didn’t know. Litter likewise:
“Excuse me, I think you forgot this.”
A year of cancer operations,
of pointless surgical interventions,
left her thin
as a prepubescent girl again.
“This is my proper weight.
Years of over-eating, I’m afraid.”
Thin and humbled.
Humbled, not humble,
as we are at our end. Our flood
a riverbed’s mosaic of mud.
Craig Raine is a poet, novelist and critic, and was the editor of “Areté” magazine
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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special