Bridge Over The Aire Book 5 by Barry Tebb


The mooring posts marked on the South Leeds map

Of 1908 still line the Aire’s side, huge, red

With rust, they stand by the Council’s Transpennine

Trail opposite the bricked and boarded up Hunslet

Mills with trees growing from its top storey, roofless,

Open to the enormous skies of our childhood.

The Aire Suspension Bridge, always my bridge,

Has gone from wartime camouflage grey to

Council green with a traffic island in between

The lanes where lorries roar and silent anglers

Stitched along the shore shelter under the

Giant red, green and yellow umbrellas of Monet.

In the Aire’s clear waters salmon dart and

Giant trout are basking in the sun;

There is abundant clay for potters’ wheels

With haptic stone for sculptors’ hands

And the surrounding water is lapis lazuli and ochre.

The steps to the moorings have been carved

Out of indigenous rock and the bridge itself,

Arch by arch, was made of Hunslet iron and brought

On drays two hundred yards from the foundry where

They forged it and it was laid, cantilever by cantilever

By local men hammering home the bolts

From the Hunslet Nail Works.

They fashioned a toll-gate and a keeper came

And sat in a booth with his pipe and a ledger

To take down comings and goings in the curious

Copper-plate of the Hunslet Board School and

Beneath the bridge sailed dhows and catamarans

And coal barges with captains who smoked short

Stubby pipes in shirt-sleeves and Van Gogh was

There to capture them on canvas after canvas.

Vermeer had exactly the touch and his palette

Was right for the chiaroscuro of the back-to-backs;

He got the particular yellow of the donkey-stoned

Steps and the waxed scarlet rinds of the Edam our

Mothers bought up at the Maypole.

There was a heat haze over Accommodation Road

And in it we saw the oases of Kandinsky

And listened to camels’ bells

And tasted the dates of the abundant palms.

There was a boat deep-delved

Sitting in the water

There was the sun of spring

On the bridge’s span

Carissima, Carissima

Hair falling

Over your shoulder

Over the worn collar

Of your mauve blazer.

Only through poetry

Does the beauty last

Broken on the surface

Of the water.

Aire moving to the sea

Sun on water glistening

Turquoise ripples

Flecked with gold

Petrol rainbows in the pools

The bridge’s arc a double

Rainbow where I stood with you

At the top of the steps

To the river

The steps are crumbling

Worn with waiting

Your words awakened

Lavender Walk

Took me by surprise

I have been there ever since

By the look in your eyes.

I write between the lines

Of the Great Northern Goodsyard

My staves are the buffers

My stops the buffer ends.

Ben’s cycle shop at Crossgreen had the odd few Christmas toys

A clockwork Triang train in a grand cardboard box, on the cover

A boy in a red pullover glowing over ‘The Coronation Scot’

Full-steaming ahead through glens and loch-laden mountain

Scenes and a sign ‘To Edinburgh Fifty Miles’.

Waking, a few weeks later, to find the box bulging my Christmas

Pillowcase, I wound the green engine incessantly and put it

On the track but it always came off at the first bend.

I coupled up the chocolate-coloured carriages, sending it

Across the carpet till it hit the fender, crashing over

With its wheels spinning in the air, going nowhere.

In Mr Murray’s papershop were boxes of string on shelves,

Penny ice lollies ;you sucked until the colour went, leaving

You with ice castles on sticks. Every week I bought two

Threepenny Sexton Blake mysteries, sixty-four action packed

Pages, full of rascally Lascars and pig-tailed Chinese devils.

There were twopenny packets of stamps for my Royal Mail Album

Stately portraits of Sun Yat Sen, Gold Coast clippers, salt

Gatherers on a palm-fringed shore - ‘Turks and Caicos Islands’.

Len the cobbler kept tacks beneath his tongue, a trick

He was taught at Cobblers’ College; he said he could spit

Them straight into the leather but only without an audience

Whose eyes stopped the magic from working.

Up Easy Road was Rocket’s Greengrocers - Stanley Rocket

Had a green van he took me and Colin in, delivering.

In Kirkgate Market Car Park the attendant shouted,

“On your way, sky-rocket, you’re too mean to pay!”

Stanley laughed and parked anyway but he told us

To hush when we drove to the house of a Big Doctor

At the Infirmary. A snooty housekeeper took the box

Of fruit and veg in, sniffing all the way to the

Tradesmens’ entrance.

Back at the shop on brass rails were clumps of bananas,

Tins of under-the-counter Grade ‘A’ salmon and their

Aunt Mary had her chiropodist’s surgery over the shop;

When I got a verucca at the baths she scraped it away

Week after week till it bled into nothing.

Up Easy Road was the Maypole with its tiled tapestry of

Village Green, flower-decked maypole and dancing children

Like little Shirley Temples with bows in their hair and

Bows tied to their shepherds’ crooks. There were biscuits

In boxes with glass tops and Mrs Hyde, the manageress,

Used to give me custard creams to persuade my mother

To be a Registered Customer but she wouldn’t move from

Boring Rockets with their cheap bruised fruit.

When her mam called Margaret in ‘To run an errand’

It was only me she took with her over the suspension

Bridge down Hunslet to the corner shop ‘For a packet of

Dr. White’s, Margaret whispered in my ear, touching the

Lobe with her tongue and her eyes shone.

The best part of Saturday was the afternoon matin?e

At ‘The Princess’ - penny ice lollies, Big Jim slapping

Heads - “Shurrup!” His beer-belly, bear-body growled

At the silence.

Every seat was filled and next to me Margaret was intent

On “The Little Rascals”. So I put my arm around her and

She pretended not to notice. The walk home together

Was long and delirious, pushing Margaret on the swings

In East End Park higher and higher, the chain links

Rattling, blood drumming in her ears, her hair falling

over her forehead, the colour rising in her cheeks.

The avenues through the trees were Versailles and

Windsor Great Park, the earth mound by the main gate

The ramparts of Troy.

How she could encompass me in her own fragility!

At ten she looked after her two year old sister

And already delinquent younger brother, their

Mother working shifts, making sandwiches in Redmond’s

Pork Butchers’ basement.

Alone at dusk on East End Park a strange mister

Showed himself to her but she only laughed.

Once, while we were playing on the Hollows,

She asked me what V.D. was but I was too embarrassed,

The harder I tried to explain, the more she laughed.

When we saw a drunk staggering Chaplinesque from

Lamp-post to lamp-post I started to laugh but

simply she said, “Poor man!“ shaming me to silence.

Perhaps her pity was for her absent drunken father,

Every year serving six weeks in Armley for maintenance.

Once, on a hot summer afternoon, Margaret and I were

Sitting in the binyard telling stories when he came

Unexpected and awkward with chocolate. “What do you want?”

Asked Margaret’s mam, facing him and he mumbled and shuffled

Away, ashamed.

A thousand visits to the supermarket

A thousand acts of sexual intimacy

Spread over forty years.

Your essence was quite other

A smile of absolute connection

Repeated a thousand times.

Your daily visits to the outside lavatory

While I stood talking outside,

an intimacy I have sought

With no other.

My greatest fear is that you might

Have changed beyond recognition.

Submerged in trivia and the

Minutiae of the quotidian.

At ten my adoration of you was total,

At fifty-four it is somewhat greater:

I place you among the angels and madonnas

Of the quattrocento, Raphael and Masaccio

And Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura.

Summoning the ghosts of the dead

I do not dream of Caesar

But of you Uncle Arthur

In your greasy overalls,

Home from Hudswell Clarks

In Hunslet, copper-smith

Who helped to build

Tank engines for Ceylon,

Double-headers for the Veldt.

From fourteen to fifty-four

You never had a day off sick,

Your trips to Blackpool

Every Banky week were always

Blessed with non-stop sun

And Bamforths’ postcards

Showed you shared the beach

With half of Leeds

One day you came home early,

Sat fidgeting before the fire,

Smoking one Capstan Full Strength

After another; Auntie Nellie

Was working at the Maypole

So you told me, at twelve,

Your troubles, “They just went

Bust once gaffer died, his lad

Just couldn’t thoil it, so we got

Our cards and that was that”.

For months he moped, they told him

Copper-smiths were no more use,

“It’s plastics now” and he was

Far too old to learn another trade

And then the Maypole folded too

When supermarkets came and Nellie

Stayed with you at home until

She dropped behind the door

And no-one knew for hours.

The hospital they took her to

Had wooden prefab wards; I visited

One Sunday afternoon, she held on

To my hands and kept on crying,

“Barry, tell your dad he’s educated,

He’ll know how to get me out”.

She cried until she died

And Uncle Arthur lasted

Two years more; they knocked

The houses down and so he moved

But never bothered to unpack,

Dying in hospital during

A routine check.

Eggshell and Wedgwood Blue were just two

Of the range on the colour cards Dulux

Tailored to our taste in the fifties,

Brentford nylons, Formica table tops and

Fablon shelf-covering in original oak or

Spruce under neon tubes and Dayglo shades.

Wartime brown and green went out, along with

The Yorkist Range, the wire-mesh food safe

In the cellar, the scrubbed board bath lid

And marbled glass bowl over the light bulb

With its hidden hoard of dead flies and

Rusting three-tier chain.

We moved to the new estate, Airey semis

With their pebble-dash prefabricated slats,

Built-in kitchen units and made-to-measure gardens.

Every Saturday I went back to the streets,

Dinner at Auntie Nellie’s, Yorkies, mash and gravy,

Then the matin?e at the Princess with Margaret,

The queen of my ten-year old heart.

Everybody was on the move, half the neighbours

To the new estates or death, newcomers with

Rough tongues from over the bridge slum clearance.

A drive-in Readymix cement works bruised the Hollows,

Ellerby Lane School closed, St Hilda’s bulldozed.

The trams stopped for good after the Coronation Special

In purple and gold toured the city’s tracks and

The red-white and blue on the cake at the street party

Crumbled to dust and the river-bank rats fed on it

Like Miss Haversham’s wedding feast all over again.

The cobbled hill past the Mansions led nowhere,

The buses ran empty, then the route closed.

I returned again and again in friends’ cars,

Now alone, on foot, again and again.

Come Whitsuntide the tally-men grew fat:

The poorest kids turned out in new blue

Worsted suits and matching caps, socks in

Scarlet plaid and mirror-shiny shoes so

When that special Sunday came they never

Missed a door to knock and say,

“Something for mi Whitsies, Mister, please”

And mostly people gave a tanner or a

Threepenny bit and felt all good inside.

The Fowlers had six boys and Jim was once

My mate but I didn’t like his manners much,

He’d gozzle on the wall and wee behind wagons.

When Julie saw his cock he laughed and winked,

“So what?” he said, aged ten, and hefted it,

“Where’s your’s?”

His father liked a drink and every night

His mam and him went off down Hunslet Road

And left their six the key and came back

Singing late. Their dad once went off on his

Own but never came back: his hidden ulcer

Haemorrhaged and he spewed back seven pints

Of Tetley’s best, some blood and enough guts

To leave him dead.

Jim’s sorrow came in waves, for days he’d sit

And say, “‘E only went to a birthday party and

‘Ad one single drink” and other times he’d sit

And stare in silence. He was always loyal and

Once when someone from away passed our street

End and called me for my grammar school cap

Jim turned and said, “I go there, too, want to

Make something of it?” the menace of his five

Brothers heavy in the air

The Council gave his mam a bigger house

Up in the Fewstons but they couldn’t pay

The bigger rent or fares and came back quick

Enough to chump for Bonfire Night, trailing down

Knowsthorpe for broken branches, past the water

Works, where Kevin Keogh climbed the fence:

When the foreman saw his torn outsize overcoat

He slapped his head until it rang, “Keep out

You fucking Irish twat!” That was before I’d

Learned to answer back so when Ma Moorhouse

Clumped out in her calipers to tell us off

I asked, “By what law should we leave?”

And when she bellowed back, “Our Pete’ll do you

When ‘e’s ‘ome!” Jim, not to be outdone, laughed

And yelled, “‘E’s eighteen stone and couldn’t

Bash a bean, the gozzle-bag.”

When Margaret Gardiner came I left Jim and

He went with the older lads while I sat on

Margaret’s mam’s wall and made up stories.

Marlene joined up when we played ‘Doctors,

And Nurses’ and I was always the doctor and

Margaret the nurse and Marlene the patient

But Margaret would never change with Marlene

Who egged us on but I hung back when Marlene

Went off with the older lads and Margaret

For Whitsies wore her new mauve blazer and

I loved her deep, violet eyes and her mam

Had such a knowing look all summer long.

by Barry Tebb

Other poems by 'Barry Tebb'

The Dreamer, The Sleep

Without The Wherewithall

To Leeds Big Issue Sellers

Our Son

To The Sound Of Violins


Infamous Poet

Pulled From A Life Some Leaves

In Harm’s Way

Coming To Terms With Schizophrenia

Search Poems
e.g. love, marriage, kids

Popular poems this week

In Silence We Left

The Lost Dances of Cranes

The Author to her Book

Summer Evening

The Lesson

A chilly Peace infests the Grass

You Fit Into Me

To Mæcenas

mr youse needn't be so spry..

Oh, honey of an hour