Poetry: Peter Challis | Cassandra Voices

Poetry: Peter Challis




It was the very last shot on the roll
Before the film disappeared into the spool –
You, sitting on the terrace, on a three-legged stool.

That night, you felt too tired, you said
For a glass of vinho verde, and headed to bed

At half-past eight. We had spent the days
In the laurel-girded hills, trekking the levadas

Clinging, for dear life, to a mountain edge
Until you had come to rest on that hotel ledge –

Serene, in jeans and a flower-print tee.
Next day, we went to Boca da Corrida by taxi
So you could ascend, one last time, to the sky.



If you wander down Platform Four, it’s still there:
The Waiting Room. But Grace can’t be seen anywhere –
Grace, the Queen of the Ladies Waiting Room.

Who polished the tall arched windows and doors?
Who waxed the oak benches and parquet floors?
Grace, the Queen of the Ladies Waiting Room.

Who stacked the long vases with sword lilies and mums?
Who filled the sills with soapwort and sweet williams?
Grace, the Queen of the Ladies Waiting Room.

Who tended the men before, on their way to War?
With barms, tea and blankets, on Platform Four?
Grace, and four hundred more, in the Ladies Waiting Room.

The four hundred are recalled – at the eleventh hour
But who remembers Grace, and her flower-filled bower?
Who will put a white carnation for Grace
In the Ladies Waiting Room?


What can be created, can be destroyed

In Wordsworth’s time, they surveyed the land,
Men in stove-pipe hats and coats with tails,
To plot a way to Bowness, and beyond –
And ply the green between with iron rails.

From all around, they came, to speculate
As company shares begat more, still more –
And rails were laid right next to Bassenthwaite
Bringing Durham coal to smelt the lakeland ore.

By Larkin’s day, they came with balance sheets,
Men in grey trench coats and bowler hats,
And pronounced the railway could not compete –
With their consultant’s report and doctored stats.

In panelled rooms, behind spectacled smiles,
They approve yet more motorway miles –
See, now they’ve tarmacked Bassenthwaite’s shore
So we can drive right up to Wordsworth’s door.



At ten, our year was divided in two, A and B
and then, A was divided again, and we,
our half of A (a quarter of the year)
practised verbal reasoning for the remainder
of our time at primary school, till we sat
the eleven-plus exam, and half of those that
sat the exam went to the grammar school
and the rest to secondary modern school,
so that our group at grammar was one eighth
of our year at ten. At grammar, we were split again
into A, B and C, and one-third of us
were in A, which was one-twenty-fourth of us
who were all together at ten. At sixteen,
we were joined by some people from secondary modern,
including my friend. He said he was one
of those told he had failed at eleven –
a ball that didn’t bounce, one of those written
off. I was one of those that bounced,
but by eighteen I was well and truly trounced
by my friend, who went to study history at university
(while I went to work at the Pennine Hygienic Laundry).


Two Limeys in a Carolina town

As the afternoon heat gave way to evening’s humid pall
We headed cross-town to the Hummingbird motel
Following the streets through the sprawling grid
Walk, Don’t Walk; cross Main, First, Second, Third
And past the all-night liquor store, where a no-tooth man
Says, hey you, honkies (bony hand proffers a bottle of gin)
We return a grin, and then a light – blue, blue, blue –
Whirligigged, as two cops stepped into view
Wanted to know what we were doin’ in this vicinity
Realised we were two limeys, didn’t know the city
Where one ‘hood ended, and another ‘hood began
How urban foxes scented the streets where they ran
Said you walk there, you don’t walk here (had a word
In our ear), then drove us right up to the Hummingbird.



The Indians tramped the eight miles,
a crow-fly line from the squalling waters
of the Cuyahoga, to the eponymous
Tuscarawas – boats on their shoulders.

That eight-mile tramp along the portage path
joined four worlds: Erie to the north,
and the Great Lakes; the Ohio
below – and the Gulf, deeper south.

We landed in the Indians’ wake,
came to the portage path to study –
to learn how the trail became a canal,
became a road – multiplied – grew to be a city.

Two years on, we took once more to the sky,
carried our researches across the ocean,
then on our backs, to a town, down home –
to rest there, with us, or perhaps be born again.


Feature Image: Wordsworth House on Main St, Cockermouth, Cumbria, U.K.


About Author

Peter Challis grew up in the Black Country and Lancashire, and has lived in Oxford for the last 35 years. He has a combined honours degree in Transport and Politics from Aston University in Birmingham, UK, a Master's in Urban Studies from the University of Akron, USA, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. He has worked in the public transport industry and adult education. His poems have recently appeared in Snakeskin magazine, and have been local winners (twice) and highly commended in the Ottakar-Faber and Edward Thomas poetry competitions. Peter was a founder-member of the Back Rooms Poets' group in Oxford.

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