Helen Mackay: Train

Helen Mackay (1891-1965), was an unusual woman for her times.  A pioneering pediatrician, she was the first woman to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, for distinguished work as both a clinician and researcher, having made important contributions to the identification and treatment of anemia in children during the 1920s.  But before that, as a medical student and young physician, she had already established herself as an author and poet of some ability, with several volumes of essays and verse to her credit by the end of World War I.

While in London on November 1, 1915, Mackay, then on the staff of a local hospital, witnessed an almost iconic scene characteristic of war in the twentieth century, troops preparing to leave for the front bidding farewell to their families at a railroad station, an image repeated tens of thousands of times during the world wars and recreated in numerous war films.

 

Train

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start.

She cannot bear it, keeping up so long;
and he, he no more tries to laugh at her.
He is going.

She holds his two hands now.
Now, she has touch of him and sight of him.
And then he will be gone.
He will gone.

They are so young.
She stands under the window of his carriage,
and he stands in the window.
They hold each other’s hands
across the window ledge.
And look and look,
and know that they may never look again.

The great clock of the station-
how strange it is.
Terrible that the minutes go,
terrible that the minutes never go.

They had walked the platform for so long,
up and down, and up and down-
the platform, in the rainy morning,
up and down, and up and down.

The guard came by, calling,
“Take your places, take your places.”

She stands under the window of his carriage,
and he stands in the window.

God, make the train start!
Before they cannot bear it,
make the train start!

God, make the train start!

The three children, there,
in black, with the old nurse,
standing together, and looking, and looking,
up at their father in the carriage window,
they are so forlorn and silent.

The little girl will not cry,
but her chin trembles.
She throws back her head,
with its stiff little braid,
and will not cry.

Her father leans down,
out over the ledge of the window,
and kisses her, and kisses her.

She must be like her mother,
and it must be the mother who is dead.
The nurse lifts up the smallest boy,
and his father kisses him,
leaning through the carriage window.

The big boy stands very straight,
and looks at his father,
and looks, and never takes his eyes from  him,
And knows that he may never look again.

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start!

The father reaches his hand down from the window,
and grips the boy’s hand,
and does not speak at all.

Will the train never start?

He lets the boy’s hand go.

Will the train never start?

He takes the boy’s chin in his hand,
leaning out through the window,
and lifts the face that is so young, to his.
They look and look,
and know that they may never look again.

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start!

Source: First World War Poems chosen by Andrew Motion (Faber and Faber, 2003).