By JOHN MATTHIAS.
I WAS TRYING to remember what
It was called while telling
A friend who said you’d never lost
Your English accent that you’d
Never accepted American
Words for certain things either.
A boot was a boot (the trunk
Of a car), bobby pins were
Kirby grips, and your orders
For half-pints of cider or beer
Perplexed many a waiter or
The person you called the
Publican. Sometimes you’d
Exaggerate quite consciously—
As for example asking a grocer
Where you might find the
Mangelwurzels (sweet red beets).
But I was trying to remember
What you called the place where
The local train used to stop. By
The time I came to your Suffolk
Home it was no longer there.
We’d take a taxi from Ipswich.
The old connecting train used to
Stop for just a moment a few
Hundred yards from your country
Doorway, but hadn’t done that
For years. You can’t even get to
Aldeburgh or Deben by train
Anymore. In those early days
When the train did stop for
Your parents’ guests to descend,
It was only for a minute—and
Your father would carry a set of steps
He’d raise up to the door so the
Friends didn’t have to throw out
Their suitcase and jump. Then
I did remember, the very short stop
Was called Hacheston Halt.
I have beside me the Visitors’ Book
From Cherry Tree. That was
The name of your house. In your
Small village, all the houses had names
Rather than numbers, and all but
A few faced on the street called the street.
The full address, a kind of poem I thought,
Was ..Cherry Tree
Woodbridge being inserted as it was
The closest town of any size. The first
name I recognize is Anthony Part in 1946,
and then a little later, in the same year,
Wayland Hilton-Young. Wayland was to
Become my brother-in-law in the 1960s
But I never met Anthony Part. I was
Told that he had joined the navy
Rather than the army to avoid the
Misfortune of being called Private Part.
In 1946 they’d still have come by train
To the halt, been met by Captain Adams,
Your recently retired father and led
Down the hill to what was then newly
Acquired: the Cherry Tree house
Made by joining together sometime
In the eighteenth century three small
Elizabethan cottages made of great
Beams and stuck together with the glue
Of local mud and horsehair.
The names go on: Frances Drury-Lowe
Elizabeth Hilton-Young, your half-sister
And Wayland’s wife, Nigel Bonham-Carter,
Adam Paul, the local squire, and
Elizabeth Shakespeare, Duchess of
Bedford House. By now I’m up to 1953
And find Zbyszek Katarski, from
The White House, Parham. I once put
His name in a poem as being one of
The Polish airmen who stayed on in
The next village after the war. The airfield
Was up the hill a few hundred yards
Beyond the halt. It was a base for
B-17s which flew mainly American crews.
You can still walk the runways, though
They’re full of grass and moss and weeds.
I flip ahead to the sixties, trying not to
Look at names of your other suitors who
Eventually came in flocks. At one point,
Your mother told me, you had four boyfriends
All named Michael and identified not by
Their surnames but by the number as they
Alternated in your affection: Michael 1,
Michael 2, Michael 3, and Michael 4.
I know there’s a Russian and an Afghan
Boyfriend on the list, but rarely Englishmen,
Save for Richard Palmer, whom I met the
Very day I had to tell your father you were
Going to marry me and go off to America.
He fancied Richard Palmer for you and I
Even felt a little sorry for him when your
Mother gave him our good news.
I find my own first signature in June 1967,
And then again in 1971—we’d stayed
Away three years—and soon after that
The names of Cynouai and Laura, our young
Daughters, written in your hand. After that,
A steady stream of our own friends,
My mother, Lois, Joel and Sandy Barkan,
Vince Sherry and John Garvick, colleagues
Both of them, and then some early students,
All of those about as old as I am now.
There’s a blank page, which I turn, and
There I find “Pam’s Funeral Tea.”
For me, your house became a Howards End
And Pamela, your mum, a Mrs. Wilcox.
Forster would have loved the place and
Early on, wasn’t far away—living out his
Final years at King’s College Cambridge.
Your mother told me that I had to ask
Your father for your hand, in “the traditional
Manner” she smiled. The old captain was
Quite deaf and hardly noticed that I
Was around on my several previous visits.
He’d sit in the summer house and smoke
His pipe between short bursts of work
In the garden. My job that morning had
Been to trim the hedge, so my hands
Were already shaking from holding the
Shears horizontally in front of me for
An hour. You were meant to be playing
Badminton with Richard Palmer who
Was sticking around a long time I thought.
Your mother even gave me a little push.
So up I walked to the open doors of
The summer house, a rotating affair
That could be turned to face the sun,
And stood there until the Captain
Looked up from his paper. I have no
Idea what I managed to say, but it
Was all a great surprise to him and
What he finally said was, “we’ll see.”
I nodded and went back to work on
Some weeds among the tomato plants.
Leaving Richard Palmer holding his racquet,
You and your mother came over to where
I dug and snipped on my knees. Which
Meant you did in fact find me in the
Traditional posture of a suitor for the hand
Of a maid. You bent down together and
Asked me what he’d said. I said he said
“we’ll see,” and you laughed. That’s what
He always said, I was given to understand,
When he hadn’t heard the question. He
Would not admit to being deaf. I would not
Admit not having asked him formally for
Your hand. Later there were longer
Conversations, and a private session in
The sitting room between the Captain
And his wife, the two of us having gone
For a walk, you said, “up by the halt.”
So when I remembered Hacheston Halt,
The day when first it was pointed out
To me came swimming back to consciousness,
With all its humor and good luck. There
Seemed to be no Michaels standing jealously
On the narrow path, no Afghan or Russian,
And even Richard Palmer had left by
The time we returned. We had been reading
Poems by Edward Thomas earlier on
And you had his book in the pocket of
The apron you still wore. As we walked
Off Mrs Revel, the daily help, shouted
“Dinah, you’ve got your apron on.” The
Family called you Dinah, and so of course
Did she. When we reached the narrow
Trench that had contained the rails, we
Sat on its edge, dangling our feet where
The train had run. You laughed and said
“It’s almost like ‘Aldestrop’ that Thomas
Poem. Remember he wrote “It was
Only a name, no one left the platform
And no one came.” Thomas wrote that
The train had come “unwontedly” to
An empty platform. That was during the
War your father had fought. The trench
Your local train had run in looked for a
Moment sinister and dark. But this was
Not for long. And this was not at Aldestrop
And not a time of war. We were in luck.
We sat there swinging our feet at
JOHN MATTHIAS, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is also editor emeritus of Notre Dame Review, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman Books published his three volumes of Collected Poems, as well as the uncollected long poem, Trigons, two more volumes of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Acoustic Shadows and a novel, Different Kinds of Music. Tales Tall & Short— Fictional, Factual and In Between was published by Dos Madres in 2020 and The New Yorker recently published his widely read memoir, “Living with a Visionary.” His Fortnightly archive is here.
“Hacheston Halt” is from his latest collection, Varieties of Homage, published in 2022 by Odd Volumes, the Fortnightly’s imprint.
Note: Changed subsequent to publication to correct an editing error.