I have the memory, the dread of that room,
the night spent there before embarkation.
Shackled, terrified, knowing nothing
a random gaggle of boys from different tribes.
The pungent smell, the single grating to the sky
the central tree trunk supporting the roof
which doubled as a whipping post,
and beyond the sea-side door the unknown.
We had already learnt to stare at the floor.
To catch the eye of our captors, white or arab,
is to invite the lash, stinging at random across our bodies.
Woe betide those who took their fancy.
What can I tell you of the weeks’ sightless passage,
the filthy food, the squalor, the sickness,
the indifference of those to whom we were cattle;
the hell-redeeming purity of small kindnesses?
So pass the years. Half a century later we are reunited.
Most of us have bought our liberty. We are no longer boys:
we have the expectations men have of each other.
Vulnerable no more we laugh, laugh over-loud.
What good times they were! We were the best of friends!
Beneath my shirt I run my finger down a weal.
‘I wonder, laughing comrade, is the profile of your scar
the same shape, since the same whip opened your flesh?’
This is not a time to talk of those things we boys
come together to celebrate not our wounds, but our survival.
(Looking furtively into each other’s eyes, thinking
I surely must be the only person here who never fully recovered.)
And so it is I make my way home afterwards:
the lump in my throat is not sadness, it is blood.
My heart would’ve burst if I’d told you what I was thinking:
here, suddenly reassembled, the fountainhead of my grief.