Cenotaph

Coaches and trains
have been arriving
since three a.m. or earlier
and the streets around Victoria,
The Mall, the Embankment,
Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Gate,
they’re as packed as White Hart Lane,
Saturday and a home win.
Even the police agree
they’ve never seen so many.
By ten the crowds have grown
more orderly and patient
the way families do
before weddings.
The greetings are done
and business must be concluded.
They toe the line.
The pavements are packed
and the roadways are clear.
According to reliable sources
the British dead in The Great War
exceeded seven hundred thousand.
Twenty White Hart Lanes.
They will be marching
six abreast and dignified
along the capital’s
most celebrated streets.
Each row four yards or so
behind the one ahead.
And according to the teacher
shepherding his charges
into patience and decorum
the time taken for a column
three hundred miles long
to pass the Cenotaph
equals the time taken
for one man to walk
three hundred miles.
No-one is really sure if this is right.
If it is, we’re here
for over one hundred hours
and my job —
which is to play Arvo Pärt’s
Spiegel im Spiegel,
once through,
after the last soldier
in his puttees
his khaki jacket
and his studied frown
has left the stage —
is going to have to wait a while.
The streets settle
as we sense
rather than hear
some sort of limbering up
in the city’s clock mechanisms
and then the hurrah
of eleven o’clock
is sounded.
The crowd is spectacularly quiet.
The leaden circles
dissolve in the air.
We hear the teacher tell his pupils,
“One hundred years ago
to the very second.”
We can hear the river
slopping against its muddy shore
like a pail carried across a farmyard.
We hear sirens somewhere
over Tate Modern way,
the throb of engines,
someone playing a penny-whistle
by a public-house.
Music has become visible.
A man shouts out
and is shushed.
Always there’s a man who shouts out
and has to be shushed.
Always a baby cries
and has to be mollified.
We can hear the jets
coming in to Heathrow,
a line of hearses
across the grey sky.
There is something
hypnotic about them.
The wheels are not yet down.
We can hear the turbulence
at their wingtips.
We can hear the birds
of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
We can hear beyond the crashing
of early winter breakers
on Dungeness and Dover Beach
the cannon fire and the big guns.
But then we must stop listening
because the march past has started
and the first men
one of whom would almost certainly
be carrying some sort of flag or ensign
have reached the cenotaph.
The one hundred and twenty hours
have begun
and we must wait now
with our flasks
and our sensibly packed picnics
until everyone has marched
silently and invisibly past.
Some spectators have headphones.
They are listening
to voices
of their own.
They are listening
to Radio 3’s solemn broadcast
of Elgar’s cello business
and something by Vaughan Williams,
which must be on a loop.
They are listening
to Radio 5 live
which has dropped the phone-in
and is giving a blow-by-blow
description of the men
which no-one can see
not even with field binoculars.
I cannot help wondering
whether the violin
will stay in tune.
Of course it won’t.
But that can be fixed.
The piano is another thing.
Will it sharpen with the cold?
I do not need to look at my watch.
I can see the big clock
which reads
twelve minutes past eleven.
On Sunday morning.
I am thinking
I may get to play the Arvo Pärt
around eleven a.m.
on Friday.
As long as the men and women
keep their strength up
and can maintain
a steady sombre step
one after the other.

The teacher whispers
that this particular battalion
is from Essex
and I listen out
in case someone
recites the names
my grandfather
would have known,
the names my father
learned to read
from the memorial
outside the school,
when he knew nothing
about war

 

 

 

Philip Rush
Illustration Nick Victor


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One Response to Cenotaph

  1. Ratri Galuh says:

    What’s the point of view from this story?

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