On the train that hurtles through the night towards home,
You are sitting next to a business man.
He has a thousand unread emails and faintly,
Vaguely, shares your peculiar accent.
He checks his watch, sighs, rolls his eyes: five minutes delayed.
But you’re distracted even from people-watching,
From the Hardy novel you should be reading,
As you begin to pass through familiar territory – of the factories,
Red brick, allotments and village greens – which finally propel
You into the countryside you hazard you may have known as a child.
Smiling to yourself as you alight the train, you look up
At the familiar unfamiliar sky and you’re struck,
Because here Orion’s Belt leaps out of the dark and glistens
Beside a chalky moon you’d be lucky to glimpse in your second home,
Where the rusty-grey haze floods the skyline and consumes tall buildings at night.
And slowly, carefully undressing in your bedroom, you recoil and then recall:
There are no quiet insomniacs chain-smoking beside lighted windows back here.
And the long hours from dusk until dawn are not spent
Sitting up, chatting up, dancing, romancing or waiting,
But in sleep illuminated by one sodium lamp and soothed by the wind.
You fall asleep and you wake up to slightly damp stillness,
But walking out the next day you’re reminded of how you can
Savour the way the leaves are turning (or returning).
Since back here there’s no threat that a stretch of grass or
Avenue of oak is going to end and give way to the rattling, rambling hum of the city.
And strolling down the street where you stole penny sweets
And grazed your knees, you go unrecognised by people who only know you
As timid and introverted and small, like this place.
And whilst some of your best friends in the world, who grew up and fell down
In the same forests, will be there, others, and the boy you thought you loved once, will not.
So that soon, wondering how a place can, in a single moment, be both different
And the same, you reach the newly polished old Housman statue.
And you stop before it, proud and inviting as ever it stood,
To read again its sadly faded inscription,
Half worn away by year upon year of autumn rain:
“That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”O