Jeff Gallagher is from Sussex, UK. His poems have featured in publications such as The Rialto, Shooter, Dreich, Littoral and The Journal. He has had numerous plays for children published and performed nationwide. He was the winner of the Carr Webber Prize 2021. He has been a teacher of English and Latin. He has also appeared in an Oscar-winning movie. He has no handles.
The origin of the name ‘Tardebigge’ is unexplained. It is the site of a flight of 30 locks on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. The narrator entering this landscape desires to become unknown or at least to ‘begin again from nothing’ after a series of traumatic events. The canal, built by her ancestors, is the one straight and constant thing in her life. It provides for the fugitive a means of escape and a destination that enables her to bring her old life to a close.
(The name Tardebigge has no likely meaning in Old English or Celtic.)
My Irish ancestor, driven by fear and hunger,
Dug out and lined the channels that would become
The thirty miles of the Worcester and Birmingham.
His labour gave others the power to impose rules,
Laws, control – and this became my inheritance.
Mine was another project that was redundant
Almost before it began. But there were obligations:
The need to live, the need for shelter, stability,
With no alternative to this slow procession
To an unseen point beyond the horizon.
For duty is a leghold and guilt a restraint
Instilled by our education: the sense that love
(If it ever existed) is enshrined in a wave
Of masochistic loyalty and a face that seems
To look out to infinity as it abuses you.
What prevented me from escaping until now?
Perhaps a greater fear of where I might go
Than the thought of staying with that brute beast
And his angry perversity. Only after I began
To survey the landscape did things become clear.
Now I could see signs of the journey ahead:
The drinking to numb the regret he might feel
At becoming something less than human,
The promise that (this time) he would not hurt me,
The drawn curtains in the daytime, the locked door.
Escape came with my longing realised to see him
Lying upended, his roots split, oozing red sludge
On to the pillow, his face still looking elsewhere,
The cleft wounds of the spade unearthing the clay
From which this savage golem was created.
What category or species now identifies me?
No longer wife, nor daughter, nor ever mother,
But only a predator in flight, a lone hiker
Trudging through rain on a muddy towpath.
Look out for a woman in a long red coat. A killer.
There are thirty locks in this flight, rising slowly
Over the Lickey Ridge to St. Bartholomew’s.
The closed prison is conveniently overlooked.
The flight ends where Cnut fought Ironside,
Famed for its bricks and orchards. Tardebigge.
No overnight mooring allowed. Just keep walking.
My torch picks out the names of Oliver and Imogen,
The perfect couple, their memory etched in wood
And fading in the darkness. I wait for his ghost
To leap from the dark water and drag me down.
Maximum speed is five knots. Just keep walking.
Stay focussed on the advice you have been given.
An uplifting panorama of open countryside.
They say there is a bigger flight in Antwerp.
We never realised. You should have told us.
Here is a memorial to the first Duke of Plymouth:
I wonder how he strayed so far from the sea.
Clearly he had no maps. Once you study the detail,
Anticipate the route, interpret the signs,
You can be sure of heading in the right direction.
There is an engine house for pumping water.
Several memorials to benefactors. There are ducks.
Lottery grants have disguised the scarred land
With dripping picnic benches. And there is the church.
Who would have thought he had so much blood in him?
I imagine Oliver and Imogen casting off,
Slowly negotiating each separate lock,
Unhurried, untroubled, knowing they will find
Their way to Tardebigge. I have enjoyed this flight
But now I must choose the moment of my descent.
The canal links Birmingham with the River Severn,
Forming part of the Stourport Ring. The spade
Is beneath the water. The wounds will never heal.
I lie with the dead in a place with no toponymy,
My escape, my final destination. Tardebigge.