George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His most recent works are The Burning of the Books and Other Poems and the lecture series Fortinbras at the Fishhouses (both Bloodaxe Books)


Flight path

You're asking me? Me personally? Well, it was like this. I was only a child at the time, you understand, had never been in a plane, probably never seen one. As for the other meaning – "running away" – I expect I had run away from this that or the other. The man round the corner, the shadow of the coats on the door, the noise of sandpaper, the dog that barked too loud, the figures that appeared now and then in my imagination – but I was not exactly fleeing, just starting back, one or two startled mental steps. You know the way characters in cartoon strips run away from something terrifying, extending both hands forwards, their heads turned back over their shoulders at the horror, their eyes starting from their sockets. All this starting and startling and not getting anywhere. Nobody runs or flees like that, not physically. Ah, but in the mind it's different, there you want to be airborne it's just that your feet don't move.

The flight was something dreamed up by my parents. There was shooting and anxiety, that at least is my impression of the facts, that were indeed facts, but for me, see, it's only an impression. One bullet zipped into the room on the third floor, zinged off the ceiling and zapped my watch. The one I was wearing. Quite spoilt it. That was daytime. Later, in the dark, in another flat, the one with the enormous dog, the adults were in the next room and had left a very big map spread out on the floor. I stepped onto the map with my seven-league boots and was quickly elsewhere. Elsewhere was what they were talking about in there. Elsewhere was where we were bound.

Soon after we were on the train. Clutter and more anxiety. Stories to tell to soldiers or anyone who asks. Landscape mostly flat. Soldier comes round but doesn't ask me anything. Little brother asleep. We change trains and soon we are at another station, a tiny country station, along with some others. By this time I sense something has changed but how, I don't know. Not a holiday.

We're in a barn. Only once have I been up so late. Then I sleep and am awake again. The smell on the man's breath is alcohol. Pálinka, says someone, possibly my mother. The man leads and several of us set off across the fields. I walk and carry a small case of photographs. It's not heavy but the walk is very long and muddy. I lose a shoe. We're in a copse. A light appears and a man in uniform. First screams then tears. Here we are: elsewhere, altogether elsewhere, now we can sleep.

The plane comes three days later, a low but loud internal hum that seems to be coming from my stomach. In darkness we land. There are warm coarse blankets and a lit hall, then a bus. Elsewhere again. Here. Here and there will not be quite such fixed locations from now on.

Continues in issue 19. Order now.



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