Ben and Tillie
Ben and Tillie lived haphazardly
In the cellar of tinned-up twenty-three.
I passed on their post occasionally,
The stench of boiled cabbage,
Tobacco smoke, raw poverty
Snaking out the letterbox
Turned my stomach, gagging me.
Every night, by candlelight,
Tillie tended marigolds in plastic pots,
Bluebells and hollyhocks filled window boxes,
Belfast sinks, gumboots…
Anything would do.
Ben smoked a lot,
He coughed a lot –
Did very little else.
He had once had a voice,
Lead tenor in a choir,
And still fancied himself as Al Bowlly,
Crooning throatily, “We’ll Meet Again.”
“By The Light Of The Silvery Moon,”
So forth and so on.
Tillie had sung at Covent Garden –
Third soprano in Fidelio,
But that was many years ago.
Her falsetto filled the street, warbling
“I’ll Be Seeing You,”
and sundry songs from the shows – vibrato.
They took turns playing mean stride pianola
Belting out old hits on well-worn rolls –
“Pack up Your Troubles.”
“Long Way to Tipperary.”
And a Noel Coward “Cavalcade” medley.
While Tillie sang and
Ben syncopated on five-string guitar,
With bass catarrh,
I crept the steps
To stow behind her tubs
Packets of butter, sugar, bread,
Cheese, eggs and tea,
And rolling baccy,
Rough enough for Ben
To keep his cough in shape.
One bleak early-closing Wednesday,
A stately black top hat, tails and cane
Proceeded, with due dignity,
Ahead of a milk-cart horse drawn dray
Carrying a coffin with Ben’s battered guitar
Balanced on top.
Tillie trailed behind.
That night, as Tillie hit the pianola,
“…I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”
A copperplate note on best Basildon Bond, blue,
“To whom it may concern,
Thank you very much.
But if it’s all the same to you,
No more bacca from now on… ”
So glad I read this wonderful story/poem. What an artfully painted picture of fallen grace, of seemingly feckless yet meaningful lives. Well told.
Thanks – I think we’ve all met a Ben or a Tillie 🙂