My Grandmother Visits the Father She’s Never Known (1883) – Caroline Gilfillan

George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2022 – 3rd Prize
Adjudicator – Blake Morrison

I was nine going on ten, coughing up 
globs of phlegm, when Mother dragged me, 

shivering, on the train from Whitburn 
to an Edinburgh New Town house with windows 

tall as horses and a surgeon’s plaque on the wall.
When asked why we’d come here, instead of going 

to the quack in our town, she shushed me, 
rang the bell and told me to watch my manners. 

When we entered the surgeon’s room, my head 
went into a spin, for the place smelt of wood, cigars, 

hair oil – fine things that didn’t find their way 
into the house where we boarded. He ran cool 

fingertips round my jaw and pressed the chilly kiss 
of a stethoscope to my chest before pronouncing 

that I’d live. His eyes, I noticed, were brown as peat, 
the lashes long. He had fine, grey whiskers.

Handing Mother a bottle of cough medicine 
he said, stern, didn’t she have something warmer 

to dress me in, something that fitted properly? 
And what about a pair of boots that didn’t leak? 

At this, she ordered me in a voice sharp as her 
sewing scissors to wait outside. Through the door 

I’d left open a crack I watched her hands 
go on to her hips, heard the hiss of her whisper, 

and the words, not enough. Red-cheeked, 
he pulled a wallet from his jacket pocket. 

Mother snatched a bundle of notes from him 
and rushed me out of the front door.  

Hurrying to the station, she insisted it was the wind, 
cold as a butcher’s knife, making her eyes water.

Copyright © 2022 Caroline Gilfillan


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