A friend of mine used to work as a housing officer in the Midlands, and one day she told me about a visit to a tenant's house in which every surface of every room was covered with unopened bottles of milk. This seemed to me a rather beautiful image; but of course it wasn't. It masked a much sadder story of a young man who had been living with his parents when they died, and had been unable to cancel the milk. And so the deliveries built up, yellow and stinking - a story which seemed to me a lesson to self about seeing things as they truly are and not romanticising them.
The Sour House
Through the frost-hole of the passenger window
your tenant’s house is ringed in winter.
He’s turning the snow from the path
that lay in the night. He can far less
handle a spade than you, dipping the lug
as though the shovel itself was unbalanced.
And what you found inside you would not forget:
room on room of bottled milk, gagging
the stairwell, the hallway, bookshelves,
like a stumbled-on ice world, a sweep of winter.
For years he maintained the world his parents left,
taking in milk he never drank. Evenings spent out
in the yard, piecing apart the Ford his father drove –
sill-lines, cogwheels, dippers fanned round him,
working each burr to a touch.
For years I coloured your world in hues
you didn’t recognise; never your island,
always your skerry – ‘unable to see
the romance of the thing for the thing itself’.
That, airing his house, the rancour
would catch as far as the common;
and what you found in the garage was scrap:
not the showpiece I’d imagined but the pin
pulled out, a car returned to the sum of its parts.
Driving now through the cloughs at dusk
I am struck by the things I can’t let go;
that some things weal on the body like braille –
the sight of you just home from the milk-house
matted and choking, your raw nose streaming,
gutting the fridge in two clean strokes –
like a swimmer striking out for land.
from Ground Water (Bloodaxe, 2004), © Matthew Hollis 2004, used by permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books