‘I made the poppies,’ he boasted cryptically.
“Oh,” I said, lamely,
lacking an adequate response.
Ray was his name,
but he was never anyone’s sunshine it seems,
having been left to the precarious care of the State
when a child.
Rumoured to have been troublesome
(he was a war baby to an unmarried teenager)
he was certainly one step behind,
with a stammer
that still beset him as an old man
and tripped up his keen wit
and hunger to connect.
The large buildings
swallowed him for forty or more years,
and the red tape bound him,
scoring deep into his skin.
His life was a round
of making tea for a hundred,
and listening at night to the whimpered rows
of that conglomerate century
of the ill, the impaired and the misdiagnosed.
In their company he observed
that deviance, be it inventive or unruly,
brought the threat and sometimes the effect
of the old fashioned stock shock treatment,
a remedy he ever afterwards recommended,
not unkindly, when confronted
with the fractious behaviour of others.
For the rest of his life,
despite official compensation
and a spirit never quite out-snuffed,
he needed to be sheltered,
having been sheltered too long,
but he made of his life
in the down-scaled open
a gentle and genuine adventure.
“I made the poppies”, he said,
recalling the highlight of decades
of workshops packing and assembling
pegs and brown paper bags and the mostly mundane.
I saw first in mind’s eye
fields of them free in the wind,
then an intenser red fed
with human flesh and human folly,
then collectors on street corners
selling flowers threaded and folded,
each one painstakingly petalled
in rooms far from fields.
When I see poppies now
my remembrance is mostly for Ray,
veteran of unchronicled battles,
casualty of war,
and true hero of the spirit.