While I’m Away


Postcard from Mr J Grindley to Miss Armstrong
September 1933
carlisle postcard 1

carlisle postcard 2

We’re back in the day of black and white:
The card’s enriched with greens and browns,
The blue washed sky is smudged with ink,
Sunshine shadows thin-wheeled cars that wait
for reasons we can never know. It’s Valentine’s,
a brand whose views captured the world,
if not, as maybe here, its heart.

September, and a Saturday. In few words,
our Mr Grindley creates reserved politeness
though his name brews up the passions
of a northern novel’s steaming plot.
Concealing self behind a solitary J, he sends
his kind regards as wishes to Miss Armstrong.
She has no letter or a name to be on terms with.

With weather on his side, her trusted health addressed,
he formally concludes with “yours sincerely”.
It all suggests they barely know
each other well enough to smile.

From Carlisle, she is some 30 miles away, and
He makes doubly sure his card will find her –
See him re-ink his pen to guarantee the address
is clear. He licks the penny stamp he hasn’t torn
too carefully (here’s King George, now 3 years
from his grave) and off it goes into the post –
let’s say, a red and polished box, flat
to the wall, and blazoned VR with a crown.
Back he pads to Jackson Street, a lodging
house with hardly room enough to spare.

That night, at 8, it’s franked – the GPO
Stamps on its advert for the telephone,
Which no doubt these correspondents do not use.
Then, while everyone concerned takes
seriously their Sunday rest, and chapels fill with
hatless men and dowdy women in their pews,
the card awaits its purpose in its sack –
its author bears his separation best he can.

Monday it is heaved and settled on the local
morning train. Along the line, the sorted sacks are
thrown onto the platforms, one by one, with churns
and packages, butter-laden baskets, bikes.

In Hexham, a no doubt older man
takes up the task, with bag, a cap, a uniform
of serge and stiffened sweat, and brings it
to her door in Westbourne Grove – the second
in a row, proud stone, seven steps,
and privacy behind the curtained lace.

The letter box of blackened brass is slim
and tightly sprung, but yields this day –
and then it’s but a moment on the mat,
before picked up to be received and read
with morning tea, or after daily cleaning has
once more re-sanitised the house.

Miss Armstrong, then. Takes off her piny,
Readjusts the clips that hold her hair.
She is another distant cousin to my mother,
maybe twice or thrice removed.
A list of many Marys, Janes and Annes –
a dozen spinsters with their private lives,
post war to end all wars.
Tidiness preserves their lives, gives
fortitude, protects them all from what remains.

This could be it. September 10th, the card
takes up its role. Smiles may not come,
nor yet a slightly quickened heart, a touch
of moisture on the skin – and then its day is done.

Its purpose spent, it keeps its secrets
until nearly nothing’s left to say. But unspoken
wishes, hopes and thoughts of otherness
were then delivered here, and then retained
her lifetime in a bedroom drawer. Why else?
With gloves and lavender to freshen all within –
A neatly written card, preserved, remembered,
pressed within the safety of a book – I would not doubt,
of prayers or psalms, of faith and hope and charity.

Both she and he are gone, in cemetery corners
to become themselves, ignored, with nothing known
or numbered, where now not even funerals
or old mourners come. No Arundel for them,
but this card remains, their joint and single stone.
It’s maybe less than love, while touching,
being touched, is that which might have been.

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4 thoughts on “While I’m Away

  1. While I’m Away

    I like the idea of linking the addressee and sender together, and presenting them with pictures of their houses. Well done, John. “Tidiness preserves their lives” is a very fine line, among many in this carefully-written piece.

    On first reading, I’m struck by the closely observed qualities here, references to moisture on the skin and “curtained lace” and the way the reader’s attention is drawn to the motifs on the postbox. The final ” touched and being touched” is very finely conveyed in a poem which becomes a meditation within the narrative.

    Clearly, a tremendous amount of work that has gone into this poem. I like ” thin-wheeled cars”, “his name brews up the passions…” . Nice touch to focus on the card waiting in the postal sack, and the sender’s trepidation at “separation, which grows richer in my mind. “blackened brass” is carefully observed, as are her hair clips and life retained in a bedroom drawer. The poem, from such small, singular details, is a study of loss and loneliness. The mood is sustained throughout.

    On re-reading a number of times, I wonder if the Larkin reference at the end is needed. It makes the poem into a reply, I sense, rather than an exploration of fresh experience. The sensual details and focus on specific motifs work well, and maybe they can stand without the aid of PL.

    Anyway, a fine and lovely piece, John. Thank you for sending it. Perhaps, on re-reading once more, you should keep the Larkin stuff.

    Thank you for asking about us..Valerie is retired and loving the new life, learning the piano, keeping up her German and Mandarin in night classes. Jonathan lectures in English at the University of Ludong in the city of Yantai, China. He loves the country and its people. What are you folks up to?

    Love to everyone,


    Sent from my iPad



  2. I loved it and for me the one single image that sums the whole poem up is the idea of the postcard uniting them in death, “their joint and single stone”.


  3. Betjeman and Larkin might well have chosen this subject matter and would have written, in their respective styles, with the same loving attention to historical and social detail (particularly regarding class) as you have. Neither however – though they would have tried their best – would have been able, at the same time, to show the tenderness and respect towards the two protagonists that you have, which is what makes it a particularly fine piece.


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