SYRIA SUITE, The Story of a Friendship
By CLARE PHILLIPS
Through volunteering with Dumfries and Galloway’s Refugee Resettlement project, Clare Phillips befriended a Syrian family whose lives had been torn apart by the civil war.
The mother was a scriptwriter from Damascus who had lost her young husband, also a writer and film-maker, in the conflict. She came to Scotland seeking safety and a new life for herself and her children.
Clare has written many poems inspired by their ongoing friendship and was honoured to be asked to support her friend during the birth of a second daughter.
I held up my sign at the arrivals gate expecting shyness
but the first time we met he demonstrated how to break
sunflower seeds in your teeth, ice between strangers.
Jumping up from a cushioned bench in the foyer
after we’d cracked out laughing at my lack of skill
he gestured with a magician’s flourish. I looked
helplessly at the interpreter. ‘He’s being polite’
she said in a withering tone, ‘respecting his elders,
inviting you to sit down’. I sank beside his exhausted
Mother who was nervously picking a fingernail broken
in the scrum to stow her shrink- wrapped parcel of shoes.
A child’s bear was peeking out from her duty-free bag.
After what felt like weeks, but was only a day later
we were travelling either side of the aisle in a coach to
Dumfries, he snapping sheep, me letting Teddy do the talking.
Outside, the grey-green Galloway landscape ran alongside us.
I remembered the cliché image of kids in a foreign city begging
beside a bus. Inside, the blanket of fog was beginning to break.
Is it me?
‘Why just an hour a week?’
She’s learning English, the key
to a new life for her family
and I agree
to mount a challenge
emboldened by her indignation
start by explaining red tape
the wood-panelled offices
where people in suits
If my cold war sense
might need an upgrade
she’s got the urban intensity
she thought Scotland would have
checking the Arabic
on GoogleTranslate, she’s
more Glasgow than Galloway.
Twice, at a crossroads
in her thesaurus
she’s looked up, blown me kisses
and I’m starting to wonder
is it me that’s at sea here? I might
speak the local tongue but I’ve so much to learn
from her; about family, about sustaining conversations, about love
with her soap on Syrian TV
her drama degree
what it takes to be a refugee.
At Abbey Burn Foot
More than one lonely anchorage boasts of her leaving. My money’s on this tiny beach drowned, twice daily, by the incoming tide.
My ten year old friend from Syria has history homework on our Queen of Scots he already knows her mother was French, her father a king her son became James VI
that VI is IV upside down on a clock face confused him but most new language sticks to him like skin or the grey sand coating the soles of his feet.
Going home in the car, he’s quiet beside me then asks ‘Why did they cut her head off?’ I try to explain. ‘She was smart though, wasn’t she?’
and I think, but don’t say, ‘so are you and ambitious and caring’. Spotting lambs on a Solway hillside he announces he’s vegetarian, declares himself against the use of the guillotine, actually, killing of any kind. ‘It didn’t hurt her though, did it?’ We fall silent until his polite ‘thank you’ as I deliver him back into his mother’s embrace.
Your Birds (For H)
That October Tuesday you spent giving birth
I spotted your special bird, that female swan
you tamed, lying dead on the path near the loch.
‘Don’t tell her’ I said to your boy and he nodded,
your sensitive son, as we swung in from school
then, hugging her to to his chest,
he carried your pet to a grave in long
grass where he was sure you wouldn’t
see her. By the time we’d thrown corn
for the hens, eaten tea, I’d forgotten her, remembering
hours later at the hospital, feeding you ice-cream.
Then one day in spring, the new babe in a rare
midday sleep, you told me how long
he’d kept secret the loss of this mother
who’d come to your kitchen to be fed
and be your symbol of hope and renewal.
Today, a new photo pings in of a peacock bearing
your message: ‘we found it in the garden’.
Amaryllis (for HN)
Her text thanks me ‘for sharing the journey
of your flower,’ the bulb she gave me for
Christmas, in a red pot with a wee bag of earth has been growing a stem, tall as a mast.
In today’s picture, a new, white bloom flares
like a megaphone, proclaiming peace.
I thank her for her friendship, these
WhatsApp exchanges have become our main
means of lockdown communication.
A photoshoot ‘for Valentine’s Day’ arrives;
baby Ayla on a rug surrounded by red roses
baby Ayla in purple trousers, topknot to match
and I think of the journeys this friend
has made - her first family divided
by war, her new, budding ambitions
and the daily courage she must have required
after night-mared sleep, to rise and decipher life
in a strange land; her determination to go on living it.
For Ayla, 6 weeks old today – and for Dan
I gazed into her round, black eyes
thinking of Jesus. Ours are all blue.
If familiarity breeds contempt
what’s born of difference? I was
watching her do what they all do -
legs bicycling, that milky bubble
at the tip of a lavender tongue -
when her enquiring stare
by-passed the rope of toys
dangling across its trajectory
and settled on me, then the tree,
and this felt more like a Christmas
than ever before. Except perhaps
for your first at about the same age
when I photographed a tiny mouth
oval with wonder in the velvet dark,
a hand reaching out for the star.
The Boat in Beirut Harbour
as we watched The News
I muttered fuck
and knew this side-on Leviathan
x-rayed in the blast field
would be what I’d remember
like those bird’s eye views
of people lined up like
chromosomes in the slave ships
the starfish jumpers’
fall to Ground Zero,
Bhopal’s coffined children.
All we could do was swear
at the screen, insult them with money;
I couldn’t even pray.
For her it was family, picnics
on the beach, the only place left in the world she hoped to return to.
Clare became passionate about poetry as a teacher in 1970s South Yorkshire inspired partly by the kids, but also by the working class radicalism that characterised their local community. In 1982, with a son of her own, she joined CND out of fear for his future, spent time at Greenham Common, and went on to became a Quaker. Since moving to Scotland in 1991, Clare’s poems have been influenced by her deep belief in peace and equality as well as her love of nature rooted in rural Staffordshire where she grew up and still expanding to include Scotland’s island heritage, as well as its many cultures and languages.
After a short pamphlet (Two of Things) published by Markings (No. 12 in the Galloway Poets series), Clare’s second career in social work left little time for creative development. She continued to publish occasionally in magazines and to read at The Bakehouse poetry venue.
Since retiring in 2016 Clare has upped her output and is currently working on her first full collection. Now active in the Scottish Green party and still with Scottish CND, Clare belongs to three collectives; Crichton Writers, Beltie Poets (based in Scotland’s Book Town) and of course Dove Tales. She’s a regular contributor to Reach Poetry, a Magazine published by Indigo Dreams, and received Wigtown Poetry Competition’s Fresh Voice Award in 2019.