Lament for a Dead Policeman

© By James Simmons

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His wife

My love and delight
the first day we met
in King Street in Coleraine
I knew I’d never set
eyes on your like again.

You courted me a year
but did you ever doubt
that I’d have married you
before the week was out
if you had wanted to?

Though you dug with the wrong foot
for me you were all business
buying our hillside plot
on the Garvagh Line, for me,
raising the roof beam high
in a grove of oaks, for me,
the Sperrins a far smudge of blue.
My dad, the plumber, for me,
set gleaming basins and a bath
and a shower and fancy taps, for me,
working in spare hours
for free, like you, for me.

Old friends and institutions
made generous contributions.
My Uncle Tom, the joiner,
made cupboards, and a farmer
let us his rotavator
to break the soil. A slater
worked evenings on the roof,
as if to offer proof
how much they all admired,
love, you who inspired
respect the way you served us
better than we deserved.

My memory lingers
on that spring day
you first approached me,
erect and smart
in the dark uniform
your family hated.
Who’d blame your pride,
the little strut in your step?
‘Lord of the by-laws,’
I said. With one hand lifted
you slowed a speeding
lorry or moved on
a noisy drunk
or a bunch of rowdies.
Big head inclined,
you listened to old ladies
courteously. You laughed a lot
then, straightening us all out
in your dry Derry way.
You never seemed too hot
in your heavy overcoat,
or drenched in persistent rain,
belt and cap shining,
black truncheon and revolver.
Approach me again tonight,
lighten my dreams, lover.

Many who didn’t like you,
impatient of the law,
held you in awe. Their shifty
eyes, their raised fists
fell, seeing your stature.
I thought while you were there
order and law would hold,
we might endure forever
but, sweetheart of my soul,
one day of sheer bad luck
a little mixed-up thug,
with a gun in one hand
and a bun in the other, shot you.

My hero and my friend,
father from Londonderry,
mother from Maghera,
you never flattered
Lawyer or magistrate,
JP or barrister,
however loud they could be
or condescending. You know
the law well or better
in spirit and letter served it.
That was the source of your power.
You never deviated
and were well loved and hated.

My dearest honey,
at our home tonight
what can I answer
Francis or wee Tom
when they ask for Daddy?
I wiped the blood
from our front door
with lukewarm water
and Fairy Liquid.
Your gore I swabbed,
darling, as you would
have done, my true one.

Sweet love, good father,
I thought so clever
you might dupe all danger,
I can hear your footsteps
still and the doorbell.
You lowered your paper
in our sunfilled kitchen
and caught your coat up
on your fingers as usual
and drained your coffee
and sauntered the hall
idly to answer.
Like a stick in a biscuit tin
guns started.
My world caved in.
Your people wanted to wake you,
but that is not our way.
When you joined the police force
and not the IRA
didn’t the whole bunch hate you?
Knowing what they condone,
they might as well have killed you.
Let them get off the phone
and give us peace to grieve you
that honour what you’ve been.
There will be tea or whiskey
for old friends who drop in.
Though God knows I want no one.
Nothing could lift this gloom
but you to wake and hold me,
my dear, in our own room
where I have put the children,
just to be less alone.
I will get in beside them
when everyone has gone.

His sister

Brother, I’m still ashamed
Your whole life was lamed
from taking the hard bribe,
forsaking your own tribe
to live for an ideal
so simple and unreal,
the abstraction ‘law and order’,
when Ireland with a border
mocks a far older law
as all your kinfolk saw
but you were a super duper,
an Ulster Gary Cooper
for whom integrity,
elections, democracy,
were the first word and the last,
not the outrageous past,
the lies, the blatant slander,
prejudice, gerrymander.
You were the family’s pride,
and we were mortified.
Tame Fenian, they would pat you.
Dear, they were laughing at you.

And still and all
we want to wake you.
I rang the bitch
you stooped to marry.
She was too busy
or too tired.
A private funeral
and no wake.
Have they no feelings?
Her husband dead
and her sleeping.

Most of the crowd
you once knew
are in the States
or on the broo;
but we’d see you right
for one good night,
a decent wake
for old times sake.
We’d drink a last
toast to the best
outside right
ever from this estate.

His wife

Sister she may be -
I couldn’t reply
but I’m heart sorry
it wasn’t I
answered the doorbell
or ran before you
to face the gunbursts,
to gulder, to beg for mercy
or gather the bullets
in my dress or my flesh,
to save you, any way.

But how could that be,
my law enforcer?
It was your place to face them,
mine to mourn you.

Your racing pigeons
in the shed are fluttering.
Your two greyhounds
need exercise.
I will walk them myself
with the old leads
your hands wore shiny.

Strange sight, a woman
striding at twilight
behind dogs, mind empty.
The unnatural fruit
of murderous politics.
I am thinking about nothing
but your life-blood stiffening
your green shirt front.

Marrying you
altered my heart.
Another good man
maybe another day?
I keep that thought
away, unnatural.
What those wee skitters,
those sick teenagers
with gun power
and creepy ideas,
did is pure evil.
Even my children’s
sweet bodies against me
make up for nothing.
I’ll rear them well,
aching and empty.
It is weedgrown,
our old bower,
and our little stream
is almost dry. Oh, Tom!

Stone dead upstairs you are,
I still expect the patrol car
to call to pick you up. You seemed
so much at the centre. You scanned
the papers for signs, you tossed
in your sleep with worry. They seem to be lost
without you, decisive and so terse
and clear. Things are going to get worse,
although these last ten years
we have spent counting murders
of friends and colleagues,
old men and other Teagues
(we called them ‘forty-niners’).
the retired or part timers,
the easy touches, the ripe fruit,
though many times a new recruit,
a boy in a Land-Rover, was hurt
or blown to bits by a mine in a culvert,
remote-controlled. How much you hated
remote leaders who manipulated
the young impressionables, the unemployed.
And what was the phrase that got you annoyed?
(You said, ‘The smoothest drivels the worst.’)
Violence has reached an acceptable level.

The slickness of the media sickens me,
the tone of the questions on TV
reporters, their phoney sympathy,
fishing for widows’ tears.

My face is trapped there in the news,
contorted, breaking with intimate grief
beside the grave, at every fireside.
Could they see I was proud too?
But they never want the whole story
or follow it through below the surface.
The viewing audience might get bored.

Your black cap sat on your coffin
on the British flag you served so well.
There were lines of bitter confused colleagues,
praised and abused with loaded voices.
There was an older man in tears:
“If they’d untie our hands,
let us alone loose in the ghettos
and root the bastards out. We know them!”
I could hear Tommy answering, “Aye,
fair enough if we go by the book.
You can’t enforce the law breaking it.
Whats half broken is broke entirely.
Remember, that was Bs’ mistake.

“The distinctive feature
of Irish life, politically” -
he could spell it out rightly -
“isn’t just bigotry, it’s the easy
toleration of violence by any side,
moral confusion, tearful cruelty,
acceptance of crime becoming collusion.”

It is spring now.
Our garden is lovely:
daffodils, primroses,
simple and bright.
Listlessly weeding,
the sap-flow and singing
sharpens my longing.

I know no waiting
can change this aching.
My husband is dead,
my bed is empty,
my heart is sore.
I suppose you can hear
nothing. Every gesture
is waving goodbye
at thin air.

If I knew what to do
that hasn’t been done
I would do it:
Letters of protest,
a march of the women
to Stormont or Dublin.
I would spend time
and money, mortgage
the house again
and sell the car,
join with the Peace Women
or anyone to break through,
to find a policy
to draw diehards and wreckers
inside the law.
But who would I speak to?
Jim Prior or Gerry Adams,
Paisley or John Hume
or Molyneaux?
They are only repeating
themselves, point-scoring,
and Ive nothing to say
except what you said:
“There’s a law there
to enforce and obey.
If you want to alter it
there is a lawful way.”

One more policeman dead
matters to very few. That’s
a change from better days. The dangers
they go through daily, wives and children
terrified, justify high wages
but worried him too. “We’re still
getting recruits, but who?” Tom said.
“What they say goes in Castlereagh
might very well be true.” Maybe
hes better off out of it, uncorrupted.

I’ve stopped crying. A bad-
tempered, good-looking woman
with dark eyes stares back
at me from the mirror.
Her husband, the policeman,
has gone into the night
for the last time,
able to help no one,
he lies stiff and useless,
off duty forever.

© James Simmons, Lament for a Dead Policeman, 1985, complete text, Poems 1956-1986, 1986, The Gallery Press.

James Simmons explores the feelings of a Protestant woman whose Catholic husband, a policeman, has been shot dead by the IRA. Over 300 police men and women were murdered, many of them like the man in this poem, in front of their families.

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