Time Out

Such is modern life – Stephen Dobyns

The two young ones fed, bath’d, zippered, read to and sung to. Asleep.
Time now to stretch on the sofa. Time for a cigarette.
When he realizes he’s out. Clean out of smokes.
He grabs a fistful of coins, hesitates to listen before
Pulling the door softly to. Then sprints for the cornershop.

When he trips on a shoelace, head first into the path of a U-turning cab.
The screech of brakes is coterminous with his scream.
The Somalian shopkeeper, who summons the ambulance, knows the face,
But the name or address? No – just someone he remembers
Popping in, always with kids (this he doesn’t say).

Casualty is at full stretch and the white thirtyish male,
Unshaven, with broken runners, is going nowhere. Is cleanly dead.
Around midnight an orderly rummages his pockets: £2.50 in change,
A latchkey, two chestnuts, one mitten, scraps of paper,
Some written on, but no wallet, cards, licence, or address book.

Around 2 a.m. he’s put on ice, with a numbered tag.
Around 3 a.m. a child wakes, cries, then wails for attention.
But after ten minutes, unusually, goes back to sleep.
Unusually his twin sleeps on undisturbed till six o’clock,
When they both wake together, kicking, calling out dada, dada

Happily: well slept, still dry, crooning and pretend-reading in the half-light.
Then one slides to the floor, toddles to the master bedroom
And, seeing the empty (unmade) bed, toddles towards the stairs,
Now followed by the other, less stable, who stumbles halfway down
And both roll the last five steps to the bottom, screaming.

To be distracted by the post plopping onto the mat: all junk,
Therefore bulky, colourful, glossy, illicit. Time slips.
Nine o’clock: hungry, soiled, sensing oddness and absence,
Edgy together and whimpering now, when they discover the TV
Still on, its 17-channel console alive to their touch.

The Italian Parliament, sumo wrestling, the Austrian Grand Prix,
Opera, the Parcel Force ad, see them through to half past nine
When distress takes hold and the solid stereophonic screaming begins,
Relentless and shrill enough to penetrate the attention
Of the retired French pharmacist next door

Who at, say ten o’clock, pokes a broomstick through her rear window
To rattle theirs: magical silencing effect, lasting just so long
As it takes for the elderly woman to draw up her shopping list,
To retrieve two tenners from the ice-compartment, dead-lock her front doors,
Shake her head at the sunning milk, and make it to the bus.

Let us jump then to 10 p.m., to the nightmare d?noument . . .
No, let us duck right now out of this story, for such it is:
An idle, day-bed, Hitchcockian fantasy (though prompted by a news item,
A clockwork scenario: it was five days before that three-year-old
Was discovered beside the corpse of his Irish dad in Northolt).

Let us get this dad in and out of the shop, safely across the street,
Safely indoors again, less a couple of quid, plus the listings mags
And ten Silk Cut, back on board the sofa: reprieved, released, relaxed,
Thinking it’s time for new sneakers, for a beard trim, for an overall
Rethink in the hair department. Time maybe to move on from the fags.

from A Word from the Loki (Faber, 1995), © Maurice Riordan 995, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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