Stephen Lightbown – 10 poems from ‘The Last Custodian’
Day 1: Bristol
I drink the juice from the tinned peaches.
Gulp down survivor syndrome, ignore
the urge to add cream and lady fingers.
Thinking of dessert doesn’t seem right
when I can’t smile at you across our table
raised on four yoga blocks. A small ooze
of sugar water escapes from the tin
and settles in my beard. I leave it, fantasise
about an exhausted bee replenishing
itself on my chin. I wipe the sticky residue
away with a grubby hand. I’m so bereft
of contact that the thought of a bee
coming for pleasure, then leaving
to return to the hive, revitalised,
is simply too much.
Day 2: Bristol
Your breath used to hibernate in my ear,
then crawl out of the woods to stretch.
I’ve waited for it to break through
the tree line…
You used to sleep so beautifully,
a five-pointed star to curl around…
From the window it looks like the world has ended.
I haven’t seen anyone in weeks…
You gave up work to bring me home,
nurturing this vegetable patch in a bucket
of sludge, chose to remain married.
Why won’t you tell me: should I stay
here, with you, or leave?
I have the attention span of your favourite mug.
I’ll leave it outside the door. There’s no
more medical supplies, the plants have died,
I’ve started drinking shampoo.
Somehow, I need to survive…
This is goodbye. Today, I leave.
I will not take your name
out there with me.
Day 4: Bristol
Freedom One: I was Danny Torrance
with his famous bowl cut, a back garden
in ’84 and plastic slide. A seat scuttled
through the grass. Green trainers
a whir, riding with no helmet. Pedal
faster to become a better lap, Mum
calling from a window, Time to come
Freedom Two: Before dawn
and school registers I grafted for
escape on two wheels, a Diamondback
mountain bike. It gave me helter-skelter
hills, gravel grazes, Mars Bar lunches,
still no helmet. I had calves
carved like Michelangelo’s David,
never braked for fear.
Freedom Three: Wheels
without pedals, constant
movement. The tarmac is mine.
I’m flirting. There is no one to respond.
Now I’ve got calves like David’s
diminutive dick, but with woodcutter
forearms. I know nothing of the road
ahead. No helmet. No call from inside.
Day 8: Bristol
only what you can carry
everything else. Egg cups,
fridge magnets, the sofa
cushion mould of your
room for a hot water
bottle, tin opener, two pairs
of gloves, your inner
time to look around.
The smell of decay
won’t obediently heel
when you close the door .
your fear of being alone.
There will be plenty
of new phobias to collect
along the way
the way xxxx,
used to run her finger
along my surgery scar.
I’m all that remains,
the claggy bottom of a
peanut butter jar.
Day 12: Bristol
Before, I never questioned
how a rocket went into space,
or how you made a pavlova.
That wasn’t me.
I consider asking the bench
if it knows what happened.
On the seat
is engraved a name, Eric.
Why did the dust come?
like a four-year-old
would be if you challenged
her to split an atom.
as much as I do.
We are the world’s
most eminent scientists.
I take the knife out of my bag,
scratch Dr before his name.
Happy graduation day, I say.
Day 14: Bristol
I’m sorry you’re all dead.
At last I can leave
the house without
being spiked by jealousy.
I would see you
jog to work, walk barefoot along
a beach collecting girlfriends,
fuck in a disabled toilet,
ride two horses bareback
through Wilko, chase
a lion scrapping with another
lion, use a clutch in a 1984,
save a kite from a rainbow.
It’s scary how free I feel
to not look at your
I could be the life
you took for granted
I would see you walk
from an argument
into an embrace.
Where’s your air
I want to say
I miss you –
all the things
we could have shared.
I would pick
our scab and
you’d feel it bleed.
Day 19: Bristol Airport
I think back to the first person I met in a chair who wasn’t
newly injured like me. He sat outside an artisan coffee shop
with a metal cup and a hopeful smile. He wanted change.
The sticker on his wheelchair said DESERT STORM. My new
chair didn’t have one, but if it did it would say MOUNTAIN
BIKE PUNCTURE. I told him back in the UK people would
assume car crash. I took the offered fist bump anyway. I felt
like an imposter. That the respect wasn’t deserved. We were
He told me in the States they respect their veterans.
I noticed his cup was empty.
Day 25: Bridgwater Services,
M5 CLEAR UP BEGINS AFTER DUST STORM
The last headline.
It came. We didn’t know
why Robert from Durham
spoke of Martian dust
hiding in the creases
of his washing. Farmer
of shearing sheep dyed
I grab a red top,
a Chomp, Peperami
and biro. Leave three
pebbles and a dandelion
leaf on the counter
because what’s currency
I look at the paper.
This historical document,
vacuum of pointlessness,
it told us nothing about
the poison to come.
Still, the crossword
will give me something
Day 30: Taunton Deane Services, M5
The driver’s licence said her name was Eva.
The van she was driving said she delivered
for a meat wholesaler. The location said
this was where she would be laid to rest.
KeepCup on the dashboard, noise-
cancelling headphones on her head,
empty Tupperware box, bamboo spoon
on the passenger seat. Her own teeth
and nails collected in her lap.
Her last memory had been here
at a service station. I hoped
it had been a good one.
Perhaps flecks of paint
in the sky through a cheap
plastic telescope, not the
Eddie Stobart lorry
she had parked behind.
The car park was full of drivers
who had pulled over to digest
themselves, pool into their
footwells like a footbath
of their own liquifying
I took a scrap of paper and a pen
from the glove box. Placed
a eulogy under the windscreen
wiper. Turned the van
into a grave. The corpse
into a person.
HERE LIES EVA
Day 33: Clyst Honiton
I had come to find a toilet. Some cover, hopefully food,
a pint and a game of pool. I got four out of four. Swordfish
on tap, bag of Burts, polished cue ball, bathroom with running
Molton Brown. And a mystery. On the bar, a book. Lone Wolf,
by Jodi Picoult. Interest piñataed. A character called Luke, alone,
comatose. Left foot, right foot, header. A perfect hat-trick
of coincidences. The tagline: A life hanging in the balance.
I thumbed the pages like a Rolodex for more clues. A photo fell
from the last chapter. A woman. On the back a message.
There are more books like this. Titles with meaning. Keep moving.
It was signed, The Librarian.
from The Last Custodian (Burning Eye Books, 2021), © Stephen Lightbown, used by permission of the author. Recordings made with the support of an Arts Council for England grant.