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In The Snack Bar

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In the Snack Bar

A cup capsizes along the formica,

slithering with a dull clatter.

A few heads turn in the crowded evening snack-bar.

An old man is trying to get to his feet

from the low round stool fixed to the floor.

Slowly he levers himself up, his hands have no power.

He is up as far as he can get. The dismal hump

looming over him forces his head down.

He stands in his stained beltless garberdine

like a monstrous animal caught in a tent

in some story. He sways slightly,

the face not seen, bent down

in shadow under his cap.

Even on his feet he is staring at the floor

or would be, if he could see.

I notice now his stick, once painted white

but scuffed and muddy, hanging from his right arm.

Long blind, hunchback born, half paralysed

he stands

fumbling with the stick

and speaks:

'I want -to go to the-toilet.'

It is down two flights of stairs, but we go.

I take his arm. 'Give me-your arm-it's better,' he says.

Inch by inch we drift towards the stairs.

A few yards of floor are like a landscape

to be negotiated, in the slow setting out

time has almost stopped. I concentrate

my life to his: crunch of spilt sugar,

slidy puddle from the night's umbrellas,

table edges, people's feet,

hiss of the coffee-machine, voices and laughter,

smell of a cigar, hamburgers, wet coats steaming,

and the slow dangerous inches to the stairs.

I put his right hand on the rail

and take his stick. He clings to me. The stick

is in his left hand, probing the treads

I guide his arm and tell him the steps.

And slowly we go down. And slowly we go down.

White tiles and mirrors at last. He shambles

uncouth into the clinical gleam.

I set him in position, stand behind him

and wait with his stick.

His brooding reflection darkens the mirror

but the trickle of his water is thin and slow,

an old man's apology for living.

Painful ages to close his trousers and coat -

I do up the last buttons for him.




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