As ageing sprite, forsaking ballot box
and Armalite, shakes hands
with ermine figurehead, the undercover man
stands looking back through forty years of rain
round Portadown, at the old Chalet Bar,
one autumn night, rising from the ashes,
a dark shell shut in by corrugated iron,
smelling of slurry and stacked wood.
Tipped off by a sound source
for a monkey and a quart of malt
it is to be attacked again
he waits patiently with a snatch squad
stationed among blocks and barrels
though, as hours pass, some drowse,
play puzzles, dream of having sex,
he begins to doubt what he’s been told.
Out of an uptown bothy with a skinful
of stout, an old man staggers
his way homeward, as an old man should,
blind to the terrors of the neighbourhood.
Luck has him marked, not to be struck
by a bomb blast, but a sinuous explosion
in his guts. As he peers ruefully for shelter
he picks out the concrete shell and builders’ huts.
Through a gap between sharp sheets
he squeezes into darkness,
yanks at his kecks,
squats over the bare stone floor,
shudders and lets loose a torrent
reeking of horsemeat laced with the black stuff.
In relief he hears no taut breaths drawn,
catches slipped on rifles
pointed at his skull – as the platoon assess
if they’re about to come under attack –
feels for a helpful scrap,
but finding nothing, strikes a match.
It’s too much for the acne-ridden squaddie
from Carshalton; his cocked finger bends,
his shoulder jerks at the kick of the butt;
a salvo pocks the plaster opposite.
The pack think they’re engaged and let loose
a richocheting hail of steel,
round on round, until their load is shot.
To his dying day, the old man will maintain
his volley of hurled prayers to every saint in heaven
and the Holy Mother left him untouched –
squatting by his pile, with the burnt-out match,
as torch beams focused on his trembling hulk.
From murmuring and baffled ranks
the undercover man approaches,
his astonishment lost quickly
to a bout of urgent thoughts:
he must shift the shivering totem
to a safe place; when he finds his tongue
make sure he loses it; all chances
of seizure and arrest are gone;
at least there are no corpses.
Yet as he grips the drunk’s hunched shoulders,
gagging at his full array of odours,
the expression that contorts his face,
to a stunned submissive smile,
while his eyes burn implacably in hate,
hits him with a blunt epiphany
not found in the glazed gaze of the dead.
It defines this place:
a theatre of rank act and lethal joke.
Decades may have passed now,
his sojourn long forgotten,
but while monarch and assassin
dance like mannequins,
for him, the Chalet Bar is built,
destroyed, and built again,
or sits like this, half-made,
with the old man in it, and an arc
of soldiers round him armed to kill.
Marking the borders of a land,
where the corrupt unite,
a fine line runs,
rising and falling between
falsehood and gravestone,
at its end, as its beginning –
he might say on the streets of Lurgan,
incognito, with thick jumper, beard
and boots – nothin’ but a pile o’ shite.
Nick Burbridge © 2016
Now the Grand Hotel is to be sold
long after its reluctant debut
as a punched out eerie set,
it’s not easy for the tourists
to imagine such explosive dentistry
as they parade along the front.
My mental hostelry is so bombed out
I turn instinctively to Pat McGhee
in the bathroom of Room 625.
Behind the panel my device ticks mutely,
planted like a pack of smuggled cigarettes,
a surgeon’s swab left lying in the gut.
I trust now to a just cause
and the laws of clinical effect –
in good time my small friend
will gatecrash history.
I linger at the mirror,
dashing rogue that I am,
and smoothing my moustache,
so glad I’ve come I break
into a verse of Boolavogue.
I shimmy like a newly poured pint
of stout – white foam shooting through
black depths from a dark cellar
while dim forms of collaborators
meet their forebears to talk gunpowder
and treason, where it matters, at the heart.
As I turn across the room to leave
on a split screen;
other scenes appear, music elevates;
I am entirely without fear.
I have a settled head.
Implosions of adrenaline subside.
These ghost-conspirators keep telling me
this time what has been set will detonate.
It is our date with destiny.
Yet I can’t imagine that in years to come
cradled in soft democratic hands
I will make friends with relatives
of the disintegrated, and hold meetings
in their name, where I’ll explain
my mission in a quietly reasoned voice,
give proceeds to associated charities
and return to the scene of my crime;
so now the Grand is sold,
grotesque memories interred
by new partition walls and floors
while disembodied politicians
wander hidden corridors
I exit my own skin, to crystallise
in the mind’s eye of a crazed man
and, as he stands absorbing me,
perform an existential dance.
And one of us departs along the front
among visitors who rest immune,
the other, though he seems at liberty
goes back into the smoke-filled shattered hulk
where fragments of his bitter soul
stay lost, though who is what,
and which he is, only our creator
truthfully can tell apart.
Nick Burbridge © 2016