by Theophilus Kwek
‘Compulsory Repatriation of Undesirable Chinese Seamen, 1945-1946’
Other times it’s easy to turn out the light
on the top step, and as it goes,
see the shoes out of reach from the swing
and rattle of the door, so undisturbed,
yours like sentinels among the children’s.
A late bus takes the corner, locked in speed,
its long growl rising from the kerb to lift
it from itself, all sound, as if at this hour
it is nothing else but an order of things –
with a common enough purpose –
that takes place, and throws its dead weight
on the road dockside now becoming visible.
If I’d gotten up they would’ve knocked me down.
If I’d spoken up there would’ve been hell to pay.
If I’d brought it up again I’d have lost my job.
If I’d taken it up they wouldn’t let me stay.
If I’d messed it up my wife would’ve kicked me out.
If I’d played it up my friends would’ve had a go.
If I’d given it up who would’ve told you so?
If I’d made it up trust me you’d never know.
Twice now, she says, he’s woken in pain.
Nothing will calm him. In the morning
they’ll find a night ferry gone aground
near Wallasey, not an hour before the boy
cried out, and it’ll make her wonder. Sometimes
she has the same dream she thinks he’s had,
watchmen waking to the deadly dance of ships,
trapped in their own tonnage, an unnamed sea –
sometimes it’s only a storm, which is kinder
though the sound, when it happens, is the same.
It takes all I’ve got to remind her she’s not
alone, he was our friend too, nobody knows
what happened. The boy’s seven,
and my daughter goes to school with him.
Past closing at the Stevedore. We knock
back the years, talk gear and children,
plans for the house now that war is over.
Next thing, light cracks across the floor
and as the door flings wide Jim can’t
stop them, though I’ve seen him take
a body and throw it overboard. They’re looking
for a man, this height, this face, anyone?
The crowd parts, no questions. Then they’re on
the street again, marching our man along
with his head down, sorry for the trouble,
if you’ll just come with us and no fuss now.
Slowly we turn back to our drink.
In the near dark it could have been anyone.
Light fog on the harbour, and the new ships
gliding sweetly into place. Once, we lived
for the peal that told us we’d come to dock,
the hull still ringing for hours underfoot
after finding its berth. These days the warehouse
is an art museum, and the children tell me
when there’s a show in town. I’d go if I could,
though there’s no way to know if he won’t
be there too, spinning a fine yarn, or holding
a glass to his ear – some trick he used to do –
all the better, he’d say, if you weren’t listening,
all the better to hear the sea coming in.
In October 1945, at least 200 Chinese sailors from Liverpool – recruited into the British Merchant Navy to serve in the Second World War – were suddenly and forcibly repatriated, leaving their families behind. Many feared the worst or thought themselves abandoned. Documents recently released by the Home Office confirm the events, but the government has yet to issue an apology.
‘HO 213/926’ has been shortlisted for the 2016 Berfrois Poetry Prize.
About the Author:
Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, as well as a recent pamphlet, The First Five Storms (2017). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015, and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and was recently placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation, 2016. Having served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, he is the Co-Founder of The Kindling and a Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry.