Monday, January 5, 2009

Foreign ice

Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed,
the benches in the garden.
It looks like snow.
The pavements are icy.
I crunch along, leaving footprints.
The ice melts slowly, but appears again by morning.
The sky is almost cloudless,
aeroplanes take off, trailing two
white streams as they ascend;
these curve across the sky and fade.

My boots are ten years old.
A decade ago they also walked London’s streets.
But it was different then,
it didn’t seem so blue and sunny.
I was warmer then,
was twenty, a student
in love with being a foreigner.
I was seeing it for the first time,
and nightmares came only at night.
This time the exile seems so cold
and uncomfortable.
London is strange and foreign.

This time I choke on English bread,
and can’t find the foods I am used to.
This time I tread resentfully on
foreign ice, wanting to make my flat vowels
stand out among clipped ones.
This time the weather is cold,
a bright, brittle cold.
This time I have to live here.

Exile’s icy. You will never be English.
You will never be a Londoner
rushing along the pavements at
breakneck speed to catch a train.
You will never share memories of frozen childhoods
with people who spent winters wrapped in parkas,
hands wrapped around mugs of sweet tea.
You don’t know about making snowmen,
or days when school was cancelled
because of raging snowstorms.
Instead you listen incredulously to a woman on TV
complaining that there aren’t enough types of contraceptives available.
But you come from a place where contraception is not always a given,
where bread and butter is exactly that: a meal,
something to avoid starving,
not a debate on TV among sophisticates
who have never been hungry,
and want, instead, a supermarket of contraceptives.

The ironies lie there, in the crunch
of boots, the jarring clash of
haves and have-nots,
slam up against
my amazement at the complaints when
trains are late
(aren’t they grateful they come at all?),
or that the national health system is in tatters
(aren’t they glad to have one?).

In Harrow the shopping district
has been closed off to traffic
and cinnamon pancake smells fill the air.
Familiar shops cluster along paved walkways:
Marks and Spencers, Next,
New Look, Barclays Bank.
We huddle in our jackets
at one with the crowd of shoppers,
people on leave, buying Christmas presents.
At one and yet so separate from these shoppers
with their jobs and accents,
and shared memories of English winters.
We stare from the outside,
spending pounds, handling the Queen’s face.

Harrow becomes a part of us.
I’ll remember it months later,
recreate it in dreams.
So quickly that transition from winter
to summer, only a flight away.
I’ll never be a Londoner,
I realise this as a bus takes us down
an unfamiliar street
on a cold English day.

Published in Isis X, Botsotso Publishing 2003, edited by Alan Kolski Horwitz

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