Southern Rail (The Four Students)

That left-over halt… It’s where, years ago,
Four of us at the end of our student days
Got out and walked for hours in midsummer heat
Down lanes and bridle paths and unmarked ways
Through waist-high grasses, warmth-holding wheat;
 
Or let the river lead us, full and slow,
Past stands of willow, clumps of oak and beech
And their reflections that one dazzling swan
Sailed across – above that wide green reach,
Cloudless blue. To think: only one-third gone
 
Of life! Two boys, two girls, still owed a living each;
Two of us in love, all four the most free
We’d ever be, with nothing more in mind
Than the next pub and no-one more inclined
To wonder what was waiting than the other three.
 
Did I even think of what I hoped to find,
Back then? Cocksure, twenty-one and walking
Towards my smiling future with no fear
Except of things I didn’t want, and no idea
I’d talked it to death – while death was stalking
 
One of us, in fact: though we could not know.
He’s gone now. I stood still, while the others
(Like some you might have…) went, as women go,
To be wives (and one a widow), mothers…
This time the river’s just as sluggish-high,
 
The fields and farmhouses in their stands of trees
Are as perfect as that day; but now Too late,
They say, for you to taste seclusion, ease,
The beauty you see here. From the crossing-gate
We have, to one who knows he too will die,
 
The look of permanence, of hallowed ground
You cherish since you’ve grasped it will remain
Almost the same when you are not around
To gaze at it. And this new kind of pain
Goes with you as you sit in the London train,
 
As you walk from your station up the hill
Past playground, car-park, pub…Not many lights
Left on at this hour. Some, sleepless still,
Pace their rooms, their minds full of other nights;
One smokes, arms folded on a windowsill;
 
One tinkers on the internet; one reads.
In piss-smelling tunnels, wire-fenced alleyways,
On paving stones that sprout stubborn weeds
The streetlamps’ slick repeated orange blaze
Points the way home. I know where it leads.

from Revenants (Clutag Press, 2013), © Alan Jenkins 2013, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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