Nick Burbridge

Dirty Peace


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

Old Friends

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,

dabbing aftershave

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

I contract

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