Night-watchman I remember still.
I’d like to paint his portrait
but I don’t have the skill.
Why does his old, wrinkled face survive in a mirror
while others are forgotten,
like lost layers of leaves,
fallen to go rotten?
We were curious schoolboys
in blazers and short trousers,
stopped to see the night-watchman,
sat alone in a waste land
where they planned to build new houses.
Sat over a fire that burned in a bin,
he stared into the flames,
his coat blackened by smoke,
to really describe him I cannot begin.
Old age had etched long lines in his skin,
his expression seemed to say,
you’ve only lost if you don’t try to win.
To us it seemed odd that his job was real,
wondered why he had to keep guard
when there was nothing around him to steal,
just stacks of bricks and iron bars,
a few cement mixers and planks of wood.
Criminals would make more profit
stealing jewels and cars.
But he knew what he was in for
when he applied for the job,
keeping guard over things
we thought no one would want to rob.
But he had no boss to bother him,
no workmates to taunt him
or make his life more grim.
Like a freak in a tent in a travelling show,
sat in silent solitude,
he did not ask us our names or tell us to go.
Alone like Noah when he built the ark,
we left him there to keep vigil
through the black, empty dark.
When the moon slid out from behind a cloud,
did he look up at the stars,
spreading in multitudes, crowd beyond shining crowd?
Did he hear an owl hoot from a distant tree?
In the red flames he stared at,
what pictures from his past was he forced to see?
Did he fear a shadow that would leap a wall
to play shady games
with a chill in its call?
The building sit behind him, broken and bare.
He may have looked stranded on a raft,
but he chose to be there.
What was it like for him to watch through the night
till he screwed up his eyes
to face dawn’s dim light?
Like a lighthouse on a rock,
a beacon on a hill,
his presence was a comfort,
in a sense, he protects his neighbourhood still.
We stood and looked at him in the winter cold,
the lines in his face told us he was old,
that meant he had a long past.
Did he sit to slow down
what had flashed by too fast?
Did he play notes on a mouth organ
when there was no one around,
only a stray cat intruder
to hear the sad ballad sound?
As I attend to the night-watchman,
sat alone in a waste land,
I feel there’s something in that image
I cannot reach,
but it’s often beyond words
what this life tries to teach.