ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Two poems by Ian C. Smith


The last time he sees his guilty mother she goads him into snarling back, calls him mad, meaning insane, focussing him on the gene pool.  At his married daughter’s house he sees her mother years after they separated, not recognising her, thinks, initially nervous, of a neighbour woman with grey hair quietly knitting, imagines a harmonica soundtrack playing out her dolorous days.

Creating a new life he remarries years after his teenaged first wedding, buys a rustic house, indulges his younger bride’s exotic pets, then, when these become commonplace, children.  Shaping human folly in documents he treasures, he details the hopes of third-person characters squeezing what they can from life’s terrifying countdown, marches them through blasted domestic landscapes but not without compassion missed by his offended family stuck for words.

After long being estranged from his sister, walking past her house he sees her again.  Thin, hands trembling, she strives with her old envy, beats back the past, tells him he still looks good, her marriage so crushed its echo haunts her conversation ever after.  The last time he sees that married daughter she fusses with the jealous husband she will divorce, anxious for her father to leave, thoughts perhaps tormented by imminent betrayal.

Life disappears as fast as tightly-edited movie scenes.  He recalls wartime paratroopers spilling from a plane, and others where the hero appears in the second half suddenly years older, his face looking, laughably, as if it had slugged out ten rounds with make-up’s death department.  He knows good times, some bad that linger, all those pets dying one after another, arthritis creeping like an assassin through his body.

He continues portraying his now ageing characters’ loss, grief, steering lonely lives, their bleak yearning for endless chances to make better decisions.  The last time he sees the one woman he truly loves, on a windswept corner, happy ever afters nowhere in sight, he gives up on lost causes, toughens, but in vain, sadness stealing over him like ivy, endings always painful to write.


Trains, Movies

Thinking about trains of my past, their hot metal reek, quickens my heart.  The terminus station, hub of a ratbag town in Australia known for petty crime where I wasted time at school, lingers in memory.  When trains returned to the city emptied platforms echoed to their departing locomotion until desolate silence settled.  A ramp led to the bus station and taxi rank in a street where scenes for a movie about the end of the world would be shot.  By then, I had fled from home’s restrictive anger into freedom’s tribulations.

In Thatcher’s England, brittle after stumbling through early adult life, London’s constant trains afforded strange solace.  Their straining wails and groans seemed representative of a suffering past, ancient bones buried beneath steel tracks in that centuries old city of conflict.  My father, a remote blot on my angsty youth, grew up ragged poor in South London.  In a movie from my time there, trains rocket along a line I imagine he knew.  A young Pakistani-English character pegs laundry that will fleck with soot, taking forever to dry in those drear rain-streaked districts of stained bricks where his mother suicided by jumping onto that train line.

For tips, when a schoolboy, I lugged travelling holidaymakers’ bulging bags from that early station’s platforms to buses ferrying them further to beachside playgrounds.  Between trains I smoked, plotting an audacious escape from unhappiness, speculating about a book and movie engendered glittering city: obsessed novelists tapping at typewriters, swaggering gangsters, noirish women shimmying in black lingerie, a demi-monde of cool musicians.  Silhouetted against wood-panelled bars, artists gesticulated, drinking absinthe.

That doomsday movie, its glamorous leading actors, have vanished into cinematic history, long dead phantasms on celluloid, as have its acclaimed director, cameramen, crew, and local extras who left the bright light of one pretended future day now in the past captured on a reel.  The man who wrote the book the movie was based on lived further along the rural road where I battled my embittered parents.  We were all English-born but our similarity ended there.  The author owned a light aircraft with landing-strip, and a generator to illuminate it.  We squabbled miserably without electricity.

Touched by the poor’s plight experiencing the division of classes, riots, strikes, flaring, I ached over the lighted windows of lonely Londoners seen from those trains on dim late afternoons.  Leaving my bleak bedsit behind I changed at Oxford for Adlestrop on the bucolic Cotswold line – willow-herb and meadowsweet – Edward Thomas, Robert Frost’s new-found friend, rode when his train stopped there shortly before his poetry was silenced forever by war.  That ghost train ride was when I truly fell in love with art after flirting with the idea, aware of pretensions, wintering in the unheated attic of a mansion where I worked as a part-time menial.

Eventually I crisscrossed Britain by train before returning Down Under where I trace the past, listen to Coltrane’s repeated notes where laundry dries quicker than yesterday dies.  When the evening train comes on down the line like a train in a Jim Jarmusch movie, a train from an old song dense with longing, earworming me, light semaphoring my walls, its forlorn whistle whisks me back beyond grief, heartbreak, to those seasons when everybody seemed on the dole – a spoken line from that long ago South London movie.  How could I have known its exciting lead player would go on to win the most best acting Oscars?  We only know the past.


 Ian C Smith’s work has been published in  BBC Radio 4 Sounds,Cable Street,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Honest Ulsterman, Southword,& Stand.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


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