The Comrades Marathon
Well Vic, I wonder what you'd make of this,
I mean the flag-hung square, the jostling crowds,
a helicopter clattering through the dark,
runners in their thousands, massed down the street,
and someone famous being interviewed
in a bright white glare on the steps of City Hall.
I wish you could be here, right here with us,
dressed in your baggy shorts and tennis shoes,
smelling the wintergreen, the nervous sweat
and feeling strange pricklings in your skin
as speakers boom the anthem down the street
that shifts the day from normal into epic time.
Look at the scaffolding, the tents, the bins,
the marshals with clipboards and yellow bibs.
They do this for nothing, year after year.
It's a bit like a local Olympics now,
all sorts of money-scheming hangers-on
but still, somehow, decency on a podium.
Isn't it much, much bigger than you thought?
At times I've wondered what was in your mind
when back home from the war to end all wars
you'd sit in the hot steel cab of your train
swabbing your neck and chest with cotton waste
and slowly swigging a bottle of cold sweet tea.
Tell me, didn't it churn you up inside –
watching each day across the shunting yard
the salesmen on the platform in white shirts,
the women in high-heels and fancy hats
saying goodbye with a kiss and a wave
as if their dads and uncles hadn't died at all?
Didn't you really hate it when young blokes
with slicked-back hair in the Railway Hotel
would turn away from you, beer-mug in hand,
and switch the talk to Saturday's races
the moment you even mentioned the war
and passing round the hat for a memorial?
That must have got to you, as if your pals
who'd marched their youth along the street
in row on row of boots and bayonets,
on their way north, to mud and death in France,
weren't even worth a few words in a bar.
Is that why you dreamed us into this marathon?
Well Vic, each year, out of that dream emerge
not just the rugby types you started with,
that group of balding friends in boxing vests
trotting off down a farm road with a laugh,
but men and women of all sorts and shapes,
the black, the blonde, the bronze of our humanity.
Does hope, a marathon of hope like this,
you make me ask, remind the heart of grace?
Look, Vic, at what you got going with joy,
a huge, jostling ritual of human decency
whose athletes set off down a cheering street
then toil across the landscape of South Africa.
from Home from Home: New and selected Poems (Cape Town: Echoing green Press, 2012)