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  


Dear xxxxx,  

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…  


Dear xxxxx,  

You used to sleep so beautifully,  

a five-pointed star to curl around…  


Dear xxxxx,  

From the window it looks like the world has ended.  

I haven’t seen anyone in weeks…  


Dear xxxxx,  

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?  


Dear xxxxx,  

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…  


Dear xxxxx,  

This is goodbye. Today, I leave.  

I will not take your name  

out there with me.  


Luke x 


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  

in now.  


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  

and drag.  




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 


I’ve left  


the way xxxx,   

used to run her finger  

along my surgery scar.  

Page Break 




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?  


He’s silent,  

like a four-year-old  

would be if you challenged  

her to split an atom.  


Eric knows  

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, 

Mercedes convertible,  

save a kite from a rainbow.  


It’s scary how free I feel  

to not look at your  

potential, wish  

I could be the life  

you took for granted  


like breathing.  


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  

comrades, though.  


He told me in the States they respect their veterans.  


I noticed his cup was empty. 


Day 25: Bridgwater Services,  




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  

Francesca complained  

of shearing sheep dyed  

candyfloss orange.  


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 

to do.  


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.  




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.

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