! Woman on the Underground Poem by Michael Shepherd
Nondescript – her clothes say nothing
except perhaps, ‘neatish’; hair – just there..
certainly quiet; not hiding behind a book
or newspaper; nice eyes, though;
she’s nearly your age; maybe more…
and yet – surely, you’ve seen that face
What an incredible memory we have
for faces – like, the managing director
of some store firm which you’ve never used,
seen profiled once on the business pages
which you never usually read…
You stare discreetly at her, as if
you want her to reveal herself some way –
a sorta condensed silent biodata…
Then it all comes back. Her name?
No that still escapes you..
but it all comes back:
small parts, years ago, on the West End stage;
housemaids; faithful retainer in some famous
Shakespeare with those two stars;
A housekeeper in Ibsen, was it?
The one you missed? Then came TV; her nondescript, not unpleasant but not memorable face, has served her well,
unlike those who always play themselves; she played
a Queen Victoria with an inner dignity,
a fierce integrity barely hinted at, but there;
not one of the famous ones; but unforgettable.
And then - oh, of course - that famous Scottish serial;
she, the caring housekeeper..
And now she’s equal star (un-interviewed;
I guess that’s quite deliberate; a true professional)
of a slightly overplayed, farcical comedy serial
so successful that they put on old repeats
every Christmas and at New Year..
She’s been, in fact, a feature of your viewing life
right through; she inhabits all her roles in such a way
that – you care; as if she were somehow, family..
And now you want to catch her eye; and in some way
(embarrassing - you still can’t remember her name
or all the roles she played…) but in some way
(how can you do this privately in the public underground,
she’d hate you for it..) somehow say
do you know how much pleasure, no,
not only pleasure, offered us an insight
into many inner lives of great and humble human beings..
almost everyone in this carriage has been enriched
by you, did you know that? ..
Maybe, if she leaves first, you’ll catch her eye
as she gets up, and with a ‘meaning’ glance
imply, knew who you were, but respected your
modest anonymity; (how well you play
anonymous Miss Nobody!) - no need to recall your own
most celebrated role, you and I
go further back than that…
or maybe I’ll leave first; but I’ll do the same..
and I left first; as I got up, tried to hypnotise
a glance from her; but no; I did not even figure
way down on the cast-list of this play of the moment..
Then, some fan-letter, perhaps? ‘You won’t know me,
but I was the man who sat opposite you, yesterday, remembering…’
Oh forget it. But what a life a dedicated actor leads -
when they’re in work…not many parts for ageing actresses these days;
bless her, and her nondescript, rich, unforgettable, life-enhancing
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