Some notes on starvation…
The bread was three days old and dry in the centre.
Tom’s mother smeared it over
with a thin scrim of part-rendered lard
that tasted slightly rancid,
like a side of bacon left out in the yard
to sweat in the heat of the distempering summer.
He is too hungry to care.
His stomach cramps round
the small handful of glutinous oatmeal-
thickened with fine-ground sawdust-
that stood for his breakfast.
She made it in a pot held suspended
over a tin can full of coal-fire.
It took forever to boil.
The smell of his sandwich
rises up through the sheet
of well-used wax paper,
magnified, like the horizon,
by the crystalline winter-air.
He does not know how he will make it to lunch.
Tom pulls the ragged hem of his sweater-collar
up over his nose and breathes in the scent
of his own exhalations and the stench
of the basements of churches.
School is held in a one-room building,
a clapboard structure whose gray paint
has fallen away in long strips revealing wood,
also gray, beaten by winters
so that the effect is that of a tree shedding bark.
There is a small coal stove burning by the wall
next to the desk that Tom shares with two other children.
He looks forward to this, and to the heat of their bodies.
He likes to watch the black ink melting in the well.
The boy has a head for Math and English,
a clear eye and a hand steady enough
to please his teacher when the class turns to Art.
His parents grudge the time he spends on studying,
but so far they have allowed him this waste of time.
He does the real work that they require,
pinching vegetables off of trucks,
begging meat in alleys. He pulls his weight.
His father spends the day waiting in a line
with other men like him, his workbox
on his shoulder or resting at his feet,
his only suit growing threadbare
and shiny at the elbows.
The joiner reads The Sunday Times
and contemplates the crossword
while the shrinking pool of men
still rich enough to hire
call out their requirements.
He hardly ever meets them.
At night, after the family
on the other side of the curtain
have fallen to silence,
Tom lies on the mattress
that he shares with his parents.
He lies there, still and cold, painfully aware
of the tide-rocking motions of his father,
his mother’s low moaning.
Tom imagines that his body
has stiffened to marble, he imagines
that he has no viable nerve endings,
that he cannot hear or feel anything,
that he has gone blind.
When the old man has finished with the woman,
he reaches out and strokes the arm of his son.
He takes the child in his arms. The boy is cold,
that is true, but that is not why he is shaking.