We crawled forward and came upon a Cornishman. He was ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel. As we got to him, he said, 'Shoot me'. He was beyond all human aid, and before I could draw a revolver he was dead. The last word he uttered was 'mother', and that has run through my brain for 84 years. I can't forget it. I think it's the most sacred word in the English language. - Harry Patch, at the age of 102, 2001
Shoot me, he said. His eyes were baying
for the fox pistol in my twitching hand. The bandage
of red sky on his eyeballs.
There is a shore of caustic, wizening over the fat
coast of his flesh. Fishing boats patrol it,
whistling for the catch.
The lard around his heart. It suppurates softly,
like a weasel drinking water, out of some
stump of a Cornish pool.
Heligoland in his deafened head, where the dark
lollop of speech is lodged, and the frizz of his
mother's touch is electric.
Somewhere in a copse, in an apron, starched
and bleached and sweetheart, the rinsing spit
of kisses like cambric.
The stripe of the fence's shadow where he lies
out of breath from laughter, forgetful of
brothers and sisters and cousins.
Harbours his guts, when bailing the backwash
from the ruinous boat. We went rowing over
to the broken shingle.
Dear Mother, The filth here. Seen to be believed.
You would not. I'll be as right as rain,
ninepence, I'm only winded.
The milk in a chipped cup is daisy. In the mist
your voices lug themselves towards me with all
the sanctity of spooks.
Remember the barnyard, where the air drifted
from rook-dusk to fields on fire, and the thud
of a winter morning, where
I rode across on the bicycle, standing my boots
in a bucket of pig, and the words steamed the
breath from the blacksmith?
Gravel in my lungs, and the stumbling under this flail,
my side like a sack of wheat, the knife felt awkward in my
fingers. Shoot me, mother.
Read the Guardian obituary here