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The Belgians – Ocean House

December 18, 2017

by Karen Hayes

The Belgians came on the day of the regatta.
They flinched at the starting gun
And the press of supporters along the sea wall,
Unsettled by the whistles and flags
Of the partisan crowd.
They were amazed by our barbarian customs.
We also felt a kind of wonder,
Seeing that knot of children in the hallway
In their enormous hats,
With their anxious jibber jabber on the doorstep,
And a shadow behind them, wearing beads of jet:
That foreign woman must have been their mother.

You should be kind to them, said ours,
Extending an invitation to take tea,
And offering our riff-raff services
To befriend the reluctant Belgies:
Teach them the tide times,
Teach them how to row,
And share our expertise at catching crabs.
They were not entirely on our side, it seemed,
But not against us either. That untranslated mother,
Who clearly loved her children too,
Wept at the melting sweetness
Of our proffered macaroons.

They had been overrun, the papers said.
We heard their tales of invasion
Like an absent history class and saw, in their shallows,
A fleet of viking ships upon our beach.
At church I sat with Anneliese,
The shortest of the sisters,
Her hands all sticky with forbidden comfits.
I watched as the blotted, unfamiliar
Shape of a cross unfolded,
Smudged by podgy fingers
Onto her white pinafore.
And I noticed that she did not know our hymns.

Those three years, measured in regattas,
When the Belgians lived at Ocean House,
Marked an entente between us and next door.
On the last Sunday the eldest brothers won the double skulls
Then joined the fusiliers on Monday morning.
Their engraved cup still sits on our mantle-piece
With regimental medals from Palestine.
They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village
And understood that we were the English here,
And therefore also foreign.
Amongst the list of Evanses and Reeses
Their Belgian name stands out.

©  Karen Hayes

Winner of the Foreign Voices Poetry Competition

One of the poems in The Houses Along the Wall, a Pembrokeshire poetry cycle.