During the tolling hour
I lie awake listening
To my timid breath,
To the blood echoing
In my pillowed ear,
Thinking of the oxygen
And digested fuels
Carried to all parts
Of my body, keeping
It ticking over, fine-tuned
To the poise and rhythm
Of dark following light,
Of silence following words,
Of touch following laughter,
The night glazed with moonlight
And a torrent of stars
And how a clogging highway
In the blood, a wrong turn
Of a message to the heart,
A bug in the brain's wiring,
Could rupture in an instant
The wonder of this body
Of senses seizing chunks
From the world in some hope
Of deep clarity one day,
This mind straining
To reflect on how all this
Can strike in an instant,
As the chest fills again
And night hums away.
After our frost-breath singing
Of 'God Save the Queen' before the flag,
The busy nun marches us two by two
To the splintered bench seats
In the open wind-shear shelter.
I pull my school cap tighter.
With second-hand clippers and scissors,
My father had trimmed one side of my head
Then the other, trying to even up
The style, until it was easier to shave
The head to a shining stubble.
The nun shepherds everyone,
Shortest to tallest, row by row,
Onto the seats, claps for attention,
Spots me in the middle: 'Take off that cap!'
Has to say it twice, and I squirm, obey.
The class, the nun, the photographer
Stare, snigger or guffaw behind hands,
All but my best friend beside me,
Dressed in his brother's uniform.
He punches my arm, whispers:
'You look like a light bulb
With glasses.' We chuckle until
The nun claps again and the photographer
Snaps the moment, twice for good luck.
Clutching the cap to my head, I lurch
Through bully jostling to the classroom,
Ready with quick hands for questions.
The dark entrance
He has ... shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart,
and no-one has avenged me! – Henry II, Christmas Day, 1170
Narrow, pointed arch entrance,
Low vaulted ceiling,
Stone and wood panelling —
Here four murderers walked
Over eight hundred years ago
To rid their king of a meddlesome priest.
Amidst singing and candlelight
At Vespers, Thomas Becket stood
At the Cathedral altar, knowing
The armoured knights were coming:
Here I am, not a traitor of the King,
but a priest. Why do you seek me?
After their clamouring and brandishing
Of hatchets and axe, he knew his fate,
Bent his head in submission —
The first blow took off the scalp,
Then another head blow rocked him.
He steadied himself, voice straining
Against shock and agony:
For the name of Jesus and the good
Of the Church, I am ready
To embrace death.
A sword thrust through his head,
Steel shattering on the altar stone.
His brains scattered by a cleric
Who had came with the barons:
He won't get up again.
Except in the miracles that flowed.
A cripple washed with blood
Her husband wiped on his clothes
At the scene, cured. Over 700 more
Recorded in the first ten years alone,
Hundreds of thousands worshipping him,
The king himself accepting a public flogging
By 80 monks, then prayed at the tomb,
One of many penances.
The passageway is dark in light
And in mind, though if my companion,
Learnéd in Church and Spirit,
Had not told me its history
Would I have felt its malevolence?
What did I feel, a coldness, a spite,
A rage, I didn't bring in with me?
We wander out into sunshine,
Study the Crown, the East End section
Of the Cathedral, Becket's head
Used as a foundation offering.
Even now do murderers take
Their long silvered walks
Along my own dark entrances?
Will I have time to pray?
What miracles can we expect?
Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.