For Cassie Louise Bruce
The Disappearing Lady.
It bothers me somewhat
that we were born
on the same day in 1875
and look the same
yet I cannot explain that
I observe you in a photograph
wearing a headdress of holly
for a winter show.
I feel if I reached out,
we might brush fingertips,
float down like petals
and appear in the matinee.
Of course, no-one would see me.
That would not bother me greatly
for I am yet to be born.
become our own feat of magic.
You are The Disappearing Lady
and I materialise
through ectoplasm as you
in the future.
It does bother me that I will never
really see your almond shaped face
lit by footlights.
Nor shall I stand in the wings,
inhale that brew of powder, warm brushes
and Floris as you change costume.
There are so many stars
and so much space between us
as we spread our wings,
fly beyond silver backdrop clouds,
through box office shutters.
It does not bother me at all
that we swoop outside
and glide together, up
and over a crescent moon
in the painted night sky.
This poem was written when I first began taking this research seriously. About 15 years ago, we visited Lochgoilhead where Francis and Hannah Jane Bullen owned a little summer cottage. My grandmother spent a lot of time there as a child, catching the ferry to the harbour from Dunoon. When her chldren were small, the family lived there and Hannah Bullen was nursed through her final illness there in 1925 by my grandparents.
I took my family to see where our cottage was and it felt as if I was being pulled towards it by a thread. ' Travelling' is the poem that followed the visit.
We asked a man in one of the beautiful, stately Victorian houses near the harbourside if he knew of or knew of anyone who had heard of my family. Of course he did not remember the Bullens or the Cruickshanks but why should he? He went and got his gardener, Willie I think, who did not remember our family either because he had only arrived in Lochgoilhead around 1932, by which time my grandparents had left for Clydebank and later on, England. However, both men had a brainwave: in a little cottage at the end of a lane, there was a woman called Agnes who was widowed and had lived in the village all her life. They were sure that she would talk to us. We went and she welcomed us in. I explained briefly that we were looking for the Cruickshanks/Bullen family cottage and she then looked at me really strangely and asked if I was Hannah's daughter. Hannah was my oldest aunt who died when I was four. She and I had had such a strong bond while she was alive and I felt quite light-headed when Agnes thought I was her daughter. It turned out she had been Aunty Hannah's best friend.
My travels do not cover networks
of roads or finite seas of nautical miles.
Instead they follow tracks of memory.
Each map unfolded does not depict
streets or squares of field or rivers,
but marks births, marriages or a death
of someone I never knew
how to recognise if they entered a room,
yet I know full well I would know
my uncle who rode from England
to Scotland on a pushbike bought for three pounds.
All the way back to the village he grew up in
to tell them he was off to war.
I would recognise his father who died before I was born,
wearing his kilt and playing the pipes,
while the village children marched behind
in strict formation, laughing as my grandmother
smiled fondly, sitting in garden shade,
convalescing after the birth of a child
Not my father or his sister, my youngest aunt,
both as yet unthought of -
but one of the others, holding hands
with her friend as she followed her father
out of the garden to be lost from view.
After realising who I was, she told me the stories she remembered icluding the ones in the poem Travelling. I never met my Uncle Frankie (Francis Bullen Cruickshanks), he was killed in World War II, but she remembered him as a boy, leaving the village in his early teens and returning on a bicyle from England to tell everyone he ws rich (he had come into his inheritance on his 21st birthday), and that he was joining the Gordon Highlanders. Her story of him confirmed other people's tales of him as the handsome, life and soul of the party that my father never quite forgave for getting himself killed.
Neither did I meet my grandfather who died in 1947 but she remembered the Pipe Sergeant Major marching round the village playing his pipes followed by the local children, of whom she had been one, like some sort of latter day Pied Piper of Hamelin. She then took us to the house which was unoccupied and we went into the garden and showed me where my grandmother used to sit. She also remembered my grandmother playing the piano - she could play by ear having obviously inherited the family talent. In the garden, there was a little orchard of fruit trees. Agnes explained how each one had been planted for each of the four children who were alive at that time and there was also a flowering plum for her as she had been Aunty Hannah's best friend. I will never forget that day. It was like opening the door into another world and this is the second poem I wrote about it,
The summer house, as they called
was, when we found it
something of a disappointment.
Neither large nor small, no-one lived
in its square, empty rooms. A friend
of the family met us by the wooden gate
to show us round, to translate. She recalled
playing in the garden - most especially
how my now foolish, fretful eccentric aunt
had been the most beautiful, dimpled, sunny
smiling child that she had ever seen.
'That is where they put her swing'. I stared
at an unyielding tangle of
trees and bushes,
all unkempt, unable quite to comprehend.
'They're still here,' she said.
'Those trees were named for them
and there was one for me.' I saw
apple, pear, wild plum, almond, still bearing fruit
in this late
season, wearing their best clothes,
remembering games of hide and seek,
treasure hunts and blind man's buff and then
I realised how wise my grandmother had been
to plant this flowering orchard
for she had known that I would seek it out
one day, Tentatively I touched smooth
sunburned bark of an apple bough,
took fruit it proffered. The texture
felt like the smooth skin of a well - loved hand.
I stood among the trees, surrounded
by the spirits of my aunts.
When Buffalo Bill Came to Greenock
Hannah stands in Battery Park -
September 1904 - long hair unpinned
on this windless, late summer day.
Air whispers in her ear, confides
that something will happen soon.
She waits; Buffalo Bill's Wild West Tour
is on its way. Without warning
comes a fanfare of bugles, drums
in one magnificentnoisy burst
of whoops, hollers and hurrahs.
Indians attack a ranch, a wagon train,
the Deadwood stage. Kicking Bear,
last Lakota Warrior left standing
at the Battle of Wounded Knee
rides bareback through a Greenock park
pretending he is free.
In the evening, Hannah helps at home -
the Palace Hotel - watches Bill
and his Congress of Rough Riders partake
of whisky, tupenny gin and heavy ale.
Kicking Bear gives her his brave's smile,
says, 'What are you drinking little lady,
lemonade?' The next day they were gone
as quickly as they came, moved on
to Dumfries, Glasgow or Gallashiels.
When she was
grown and played piano
on silent cinema stage,
she glimpsed him once more,
riding towards her on the screen.
For a moment, she stopped playing -
just stared. I can only guess
how that moment made her feel.
Based on a story told by my grandmother, Hannah Bullen Cruickshanks.