This morning when we walked beneath the trees
Where rooks were busy building nests, you said
It made your spirits rise to hear them caw,
They brought you thoughts of spring. I disagreed.
When I hear rooks, I always think of Johnno.
We both were matelots and shared each watch,
He was a regular, I was National Service
And glad to hear the yarns that he could spin
About the many ships in which he’d served,
His runs ashore in ports like Singapore,
The time he’d spent in China and the girl
Who did his dhobeying there, and what a wrench
It was to leave, his sadness and her tears,
What it was like to sail aboard a carrier—
He much preferred a smaller ship like this.
And so we passed the long and quiet hours
Of the morning or the middle watch each night
While our fast frigate sped through northern seas
From Iceland’s freezing waters to the swells
Of Biscay’s Bay, and then swung north again
Past Shannon, Rockall, Bailey, on patrol,
And when from time to time the ship would roll
Unconsciously my watchmate turned his chair
And slid across the deck to where I’d wedged
Myself beside my set with headphones on
There listening for a brief transmission from
An ‘enemy’ (really Nato) submarine,
Then as the roll reversed he’d turn his chair
And slide right back across the deck.
We had this wireless office to ourselves
And got to know each other very well
Before we docked. I was the first to leave
The ship, for Johnno had a motorbike
And meant to spend the weekend with his girl,
Fiancée he had said (I wondered if
She knew about the Chinese dhobey lass!)
Before I left the ship I took my ration
Of tobacco and ‘blue-liners’—cigarettes
And took the bus from Portsmouth to our base
Near Bristol, glad to be ashore again.
Johnno himself was not due back until
The stroke of oh-nine-hundred Monday next.
It was a lovely autumn dawn when he set off
But misty, thickening further west to fog
So dense he did not see the concrete post
Plumb in the middle of a roundabout.
He died before he knew what he had hit,
A fractured skull and multiple lacerations.
We all were shocked to hear such dreadful news,
He was so young and young men did not die.
That day I found myself enrolled to be
Included in his funeral firing party.
All week, we trained intensively and learned
The art of sloping arms, the proper way
To do the slow and ceremonial march.
We went by service bus to the funeral, dressed
Resplendent in white gaiters, caps and belts,
Stiff lanyards, silks and gold-badged number ones.
Even now I can recall the steps of that
Slow march, the country church, the open grave
The weeping girl, collapsed with hopeless grief,
The sudden crack, as we the firing party,
And Johnno’s friends and shipmates fired a volley
And all the startled rooks gave voice and rose
Together in a cloud above the churchyard trees.