Friday, 3 May 2013

Peace In Our Time

Two boys and their mother, through a haze of steam
sit in the kitchen, reading books, listening to the radio
while, many miles away, their father has a smoke.
Their mother says “your dad could be home soon, boys”,
her dress smudged with floury fingerprints, white on black,
as she tries to marshal rations and scraps into a meal

the boys will eat. It seems to be like every other meal
these past six years. The whistle of a distant steam
train cuts through the austere mood. One boy, black
hair cut so short, looks up. There is a tune on the radio
that he knows. His brother hums it too. The two boys
wonder about their father. He, closer, enjoys another smoke,

then opens his paper. In the kitchen, the smell of smoke
cuts through the heady dampness of the coming meal,
which alerts the mother to a burning pan. “Go outside, boys
and see if you can’t fix that old bike”. The distant steam
train, not so distant now, whistles again. On the radio
the news is of towns with German names, black

marketeers, bombs on Japan.  In the kitchen, the black
stove radiates heat. The mother remembers the smoke
from the raids on London, hearing about it on the radio
and wondering if her husband was due leave. Her meal
sits and simmers, softening blandly. To let the steam
escape, she opens the windows, and hears the boys

talking. The older of the two says that other boys
at school who have lost their fathers have to wear black
armbands for two years. Their father, getting off the steam
train five miles distant, looks across fields, chimney smoke
like ribbons winding into the sky. He hungers for a meal
cooked at home. He is tired of working on army radio

equipment, and wants to make pots again. On the radio
that morning, he heard about home, peace, our brave boys
but he remembered the brave boys whose last meal
was tack biscuits, a canteen of water. The boys’ hands are black
with oil from the old bicycle; though they do not yet smoke,
in the cooling afternoon, their breath comes out as steam.

The boys wash their black hands, breathing in the hot, moist
steam from the basin. They smell cigarette smoke on the air
and, walking in for his meal, their father sings like the radio.


  1. I've been putting together school curriculum for my son on World War II, so this topic has been on my mind a lot lately. Your poem is very timely for me, and I really enjoyed it!

  2. Thanks, Erin. It was my only attempt at a sestina on my degree course and my tutor reckoned I pretty much nailed it. It's partly inspired by my own family; the mother is my grandmother and the two boys are my father and uncle. And yes, my grandfather really did return from the war to become a potter.

  3. A poignant read, well written.