This week's Sunday Morning Poet is the esteemed poet, novelist and educator R.M. Francis. Rob, as he is known, is no stranger to Outsideleft as you'll know if you caught any pieces of our R.M. Francis Week. You can revisit that right here⇒. Meanwhile Rob will be appearing alongside Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Jay Lewis and Wayne Dean-Richards and ambient musician Woodenhand at the Outsideleft Quiet Night Out in Bearwood on Wednesday June 7th. There are a few tickets left as I write, and I would recommend grabbing them while you can. Tickets are free from Eventbrite and you can get all the info here⇒. Now, over to Rob...
Fight to the Bell
Fight to the bell, Paul.
Checked phone. Nothing.
She was already late. Always late.
She was never to be trusted.
Ten minutes staring at the hoard -
toing and froing, blinkered, in and out,
weaving, in and out, squeezing, in
and out, zipping in and out of shops,
bags in hands, hands held tightly
to toddler’s wrists - decided to move.
Paul froze. Zenned into gawp-awe:
the roaming whirl of Westgate shoppers.
Then out. Electric light, neon signs, focused -
burned eyes. Grip slips from metal banister
framing upper mall. Checked phone. Nothing.
She never really got time. She never really got
around to thinking that way. He turned.
Walked. Fainting left like his boxing days, dodging
shopping bag, baby pram, slipping
right, finding the gap. Drilled from when dad
took him to Blackbird Leys Boxing Club -
breath, footwork, hit and don’t get hit - drilled.
Money Mayweathered sports sales,
Sweetpea Witakered Primark, street food social.
Shimmy. Bob. Cut. A Thames carp schooling the river.
Then out. Bonn Square. Queen Street.
The insect march swarmed:
candyfloss; miniature Royal Mail Postboxes; a Watchlight
preacher; pneumatic drill. Eyes up or down
but never on their path. In and out. Tugging
children. In and out. Sherper-layden with knick-knacks.
Paul moved. Jumped curb. Shot between two baiting buses.
Tight through three young mums outside the nail salon,
danced steps into Bulwarks Lane. Memory lane.
Shade. Old stone. Alone. Exhale.
Fight to the bell, Paul. Fight to bell.
Slowed, took the narrow alley easily.
Safe, cool in high-walled shade. Smiled
as he went by Bullock’s old place. Shook
head at the emptiness now. Feet felt safe
under cobbles. He’d run this route on weekend training.
Fight to the bell.
Every pore gripped
against uneven stones, cast down
centuries before him, before Bullock,
before recruitment consultants,
the grease-stench of restaurant backs.
Hand reached out - skimmed saxon brick.
Boxer fingers traced history’s masonry -
specks of grit, fine dust,
mixing with flesh, sweat, fibre. Slowed.
Brought hand to face. Studied contours,
lightly strewn with Bulwark’s memory.
Slowed again. Grinned. Shook head.
Checked phone. Nothing. Quick-stepped
George Street - ebbed and flowed
past tourists, commuters, idlers. Focus.
Checked phone. Turn right to canal. Exhale.
Willow and Chestnut shaded. Again slowed.
Exhale. Strolled tow path, back
of Worcester College, green playing fields. Dank
mud and hawthorn, still water and engine oil,
dandelion and bluebell offbeat in nostrils.
The jazz-trickle of Castle Mill stream, humming
barges and the old kettle sounds of Oxford
railway station fused with flutes of springtime birds.
Out to the new build flats, old red-brick terraces.
Out where foxes and badgers haunt
the wild gardens of Southmoor, Rutherway.
Out to the trap grounds.
Fight to the end.
Under Frenchay Road Bridge,
footsteps, cars muted.
Checked his phone. One message:
I’M RUNNING LATE. SORRY. LUV YA. JESS X.
Paul took knife from pocket. Rolled sleeve.
Fixed cold blade to soft wrist. Exhale.
The sun clouded. Not cool. Cold.
It went silent. Silent.
Then a distant chirp-bleet - short pitch.
Then a longer squeal. Paul looked left.
Dappled browns and vanilla plume
of Water Rail pranced out from thicket,
onto tow path. Paused. Looked up.
Black pin eyes fixed Paul’s umber.
Canal waters ripple reflected self
and this rare bird. Three seconds, it turned
and returned to the bushes. Heard the Rail’s
sharming as it removed itself. Shook his head.
Smiled. Exhale. Sent a text back to Jess:
I’M RUNNING LATE TOO. NO WORRIES.
© R.M. Francis
Main image credit by, well I don't know, it's a photo from Louis vs Uzcudun (1935), cropped for our purposes from the cover art of the 1996 Kirk Lake LP The Black Lights (wholly recommended)
R.M. Francis Week in Outsideleft begins here⇒
R.M. Francis at the Outsideleft Quiet Night Out - information here⇒