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My Great-grandfather Goes To Work
Fiona Hamilton

Days when the cold stopped short of binding the river in an ice-shroud
it was a long walk: twelve miles into Thurso to start the working week.

Days when the wind shoved in from the Arctic
past Orkney, past miles and miles of stacked, reckless waves,
cutting in under his shirt, his cuffs, his gartered sleeves,
it was a long, slow walk.

When the path gave out, soaked peat sucked at his feet.

Today there are the scant trees like question marks,
and the unavoidable sky.
The whin bushes and the wind-pressed grasses
all lean one way, mourners with bowed heads.
In the flagstones that jut up against the wind, fossils:
a lake seeped away and left fish lodged like petals in wax.

A hundred years is nothing.

I can see my great-grandfather, in his dark suit and bowler hat
walking towards the river.
Today he will skate to work. The river has iced over.
Twelve miles will be nothing today.

His skates kiss the pale, hard surface.
The blades cut lines like the inscription
on the Christening bracelet I will be given
one day when he has been dead for years.

His arms criss-cross his flapping jacket:
he's beating the wind at its own game.

He skates past Halkirk, past Skinnet: here Vikings named the river's gleam:
skinandi - the shining one.

In front of him, a week of credits and debits, his pen dipped in ink
over and over, customers coming and going, blethering:
Mannie Henderson's funeral, Alec Forsythe's biggest fish.
And the wind rattling the windows in Aunt Annie's top room
till Friday, when he'll skate home to Westerdale
before sixteen hours of dark set in.

I can see him, a black shape on silver, pushing out limbs like a water-boatman
getting further from me every second.
Far away there are cities, and a vast world, remote, beyond his ken.

A flock of geese flies over the island I stand on
a hundred years distant
and as far north as you can go.


Fiona Hamilton  sent us her poem on 4 January 2002
"The bit of Caithness blood that still lingers in my veins from the great-grandfather (and mother) in the poem! I live horribly far south, in Bristol, and haven't been to your neck of the woods for a good fourteen months (much though I long to)."

Info about Fiona Hamilton
I live in Bristol. My mother is from Ross and Cromarty and I spent good chunks of time with my grandparents in Tain as I was growing up.  I write poetry and
stories, run poetry workshops in schools and training sessions for businesses using role-play.  I am currently working on a commissioned series of poems on
the subject of Translation - what gets lost, what gets across, the joys and pitfalls of communication - to be performed this month at a venue in central Bristol. From time to time I get the urge to board a train to Inverness and climb a Munro - and sometimes do.

This poem is published in NorthWords, Issue 26, PO Box 5725, Dingwall, Ross-Shire and Generations anthology, published by Poetry Can, 20-22 Hepburn Road, St Pauls, Bristol BS2 8UD