Two Poems by Carolyn Smart

Pea Soup

There are four people in the car, two are grown-ups, they are your parents, and they have been fighting for most of the drive. Now it is dark, dark because it is the end of the day but also because words are weighing you down like a hood without eyes and the car is surrounded by fog. It is England in the 1950s and the man gets out of the car holding a torch which you wish was a giant cone of flames to burn the whole night down but it is just a simple flashlight, weighty, useful for some things but now it cannot even pierce the first five feet of pea soup.

 Your mother sits behind the wheel. She is leaning forward as if she is at the dining table and her elbows would be up on that table positioning her body for an argument and she’d have a cigarette in her right hand, one of 60 she would have smoked that day before she laid her head down on the pillow, tasting nothing in her mouth at all not even grief.  At the table she would have finished off the wine your father poured and it would slosh around her stomach with the whisky and the rich red meat she cooked so well. But now she has the cigarette between the fingers gripping a steering wheel and she peers out through the windshield at the man she married walking with the torch into the pea soup.

 The man, your father, sometimes tells a story when he is driving the car. The story is about another man who pulls his car over to the side of the road and gets out and walks away forever. Your father has said he too will do this. One day he does, but not the way you imagine as a child. One day he walks out of the world itself, leaving things tidy behind him though that is not entirely true. It’s like he’s ripped off the top of something no one wants to look inside and no one ever can.

 In the back seat you are sitting perched far forward as you like to see most everything that happens in your life, close up, to lean as far into it as you possibly can and if the world smacks you in the face as it goes by you are familiar enough with that because your mother smacks you in the face in public and no one seems alarmed. 

 Next to you your sister sits too terrified to talk. It is a true pea-souper out there. Years later you two girls will hurtle down the M1 in a bus through a pea soup, nuns praying by your side. Your parents will have no idea where you are. Your sister will have stayed up all night worrying about you, worrying about herself carrying the weight of your care.

 That is all this story holds: the man waving the torch against weather, the woman fogging up the car with smoke, the two girls who grew up anyway.

In St. Nicholas’s dirt


 Shouting monkey puzzle treeeach time we passed the church, not that’s where God lives, that’s where Nanny’s buried in an unmarked grave, maybe ashes long since gone, but that dirt is where I see them both, the rotten roots of the long gone tree, the bones of a tiny woman who fell dead half inside her winter coat one night at Christmas time. God does not live there, nor does he sit at a groaning table wearing white while Nanny sips a sherry with her pinkie finger raised. I raise my gestured finger, both hands, to that now.

 The monkey puzzle tree does not abide pollution. On the Sevenoaks high street where Nanny lived for the weeks before her death they sucked in soot: the tree, the tiny woman, God, who did not live beside them.  To find your death inside a coat sleeve is a puzzle. They cut down the dying tree and left St. Nicholas unshaded by the cones.

 Sherry is a fortified wine.  Nanny took a trip on a boat with her friend Miss Eves. In the evenings before supper she slipped her arm into her best white blouse, her body hidden inside. St. Nicholas hid coins in the shoes of the needy.  She allowed herself one small sherry before a meal. Miss Eves name was Florence. Nanny’s name was Grace. I do not think she felt that, believed in God, knew where he was hiding, though she told me once my mother was an angel, but that was all a lie.

 My mother was a Christian Scientist. Death was not a subject for discussion, so that Nanny’s disappearance from our lives was just as much a mystery as how to climb the monkey puzzle tree that grew in St. Nicholas’s dirt.


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