The Last Word

Zaffar Kunial

In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of

laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things

violently destroyed

william wordsworth, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads

All my life I’ve listened for noise suddening

downstairs. Signifying nothing. Or mattering.

Once more I’m on the landing, at a late hour

from that hall to this, down carpeted air

and now at now’s open door, the loud brink

of our first living room. Thunk. Thunk.

Dad’s on the sofa, fist pounding the table.

The low legs jump, the glass ashtray trembles.

The mother of all battles has begun.

Dad, it’s late, it’s not fair on us, on Mum.

She needs to wake up early. “Son, the bastards,

look what they are doing.” A cigarette in Dad’s

mouth, the ashtray like a cymbal to the table’s

drum. Thunk. Upstairs the family Bible

sits quietly with the Quran, huge and high.

Dad, the whole house is shaking. In a few hours

I’ve got school. He turns from the telly. “Son,

will you write a letter?” A what? “To Guardian.”

This is our first live war. I hear the words

resolution and air raid and avoid

civilian casualties and hope he’ll forget

his question. On the television set an elephant

sits. The ashtray is still catching nothing.

Dad’s fist lands at the sight of a jet.      Thunk.

Through smoke, says his school was bombed from the air.

School stopped forever. Thunk. He hides in the river.

Miles off I put my hand on his shoulder.

The burning matter of Mum needing to sleep

and wake up early to teach. A betting slip

blushes near the paper on the sofa. A small

red pen from Ladbrokes like the one in my school

blazer. Our coal fire. But from this special report

on the night war started in the Gulf, good night.

And now the weather. “Son, you will write?”

It will feel raw in the east as the winds

freshen up but will feel much milder

in the west. Well, the time is now one

and a half minutes past What do you want

me to say, Dad? I wait. Ages. “Insaanyat.”

What? “Humanity. Humanity.”

He shrinks in his glasses. A blank on TV.

You want me to write and say “Humanity”?

The ashtray fuller, the Bacardi gone.

Back in the doorframe I look at him again—

looking up at me as if the looking

could speak. The indignity of the nothing

he could say but “Humanity. Humanity.”

Yes, Dad, I’ll write to The Guardian tomorrow.

It was tomorrow. The letter’s unwritten

to this day. But that room is so easily

summoned. Or suddened. The small claim of the fire

unguarded on the grate, its thin blue mutter—

that smoke before and after “Humanity”—

and by some habit of matter or gravity

the table will never have a book on it

and I will never be able to shift it.

Zaffar Kunial is the author of England’s Green and Us. The winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize (2014) and the Northern Writers’ Award (2013), he has been a poet in residence for the Brontë Parsonage and the Wordsworth Trust and now lives in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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