He photographs her on the Cobb at Lyme Regis,
a shadowy shot to be published in a journal
unimagined then like other scenarios
destiny stores between expectation and realisation.
They had read The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Wave-smash sprays her op-shop cape
as if a film is being enacted in a surf-hiss of grief,
a heartsore woman staring seaward from the revetment.
Absorbed, they learn of a town, its yeomanry, transformed,
chaos caused by the adaptation of a romance.
Karel Reisz repeatedly directed a scene set in 1867,
sheep driven over muddied cobbles past this teashop.
They lean in, picturing soldiers in scarlet tunics,
the cinema dormant in destiny's plot development.
His staged photograph forms part of memory's mirage,
a film location he would revisit if possible.
For many seasons he travels only in his thoughts,
acknowledges novels are devices, artificial,
as John Fowles didactically reminded readers,
so too, films with towns disguised as the past.
Another book, about tramping England's eroding coast
below Lyme's fossilised cliffs, carries him sweetly back.
He recalls her cape, touch, dark green velvet,
wonders what became of it, of the characters they were.
Mme. Blanchard hits the roof
Summer, 1819, Napoleon grounded, but not human spirit.
Those basket cases, balloonists, hang in clouds.
Paris by night, a sight to die for.
To reach for the sky is the French tradition,
so, too, looking down on people.
She looks good in that Regency style,
diminutive, décolletage cinched above a high waist,
dressed to kill, you could say, or to be killed.
She is the queen of fireworks, pity about hydrogen.
In the Tivoli Gardens the bandstand rocks,
warm air above lit by her Bengal lights.
A magical rain showers the sky silver and gold
from parachute bombs she lights with a long taper,
thrills revellers whose murmur drifts up to her
floating inadvertently close to a sparkling heaven,
a suitable distance from her terror of crowds.
Riding her gondola, a skimpy thing like herself,
she sees her balloon ablaze, begins her descent,
feathered hat lost, a rushed farewell performance.
The house roof's pitch steep, her rigging tangled,
fire almost out, burned, broken, she can't hang on,
she who once remained aloft all night over Rome.
It's me. Help! Sophie gasps, then the cobbles.
Fashionable ladies tripping along white streets
past tall buildings, their long skirts and boots
in one of the many prints of Utrillo’s snow scenes,
remind me of the bare beauty in a world quieted,
whitened streets, leafless trees eerily lit, a wonder
of muffled sound walking to the bus with my mother.
I feel the icy sting, smell the sharp memory,
my hand snow-ploughing a fence, a cheap brooch
I gave her for Christmas glittering on her lapel.
I jog-trot to keep up, listening to the sound of tyres
yowling along Staines Road to my school, the town,
the shock of a dog dead under the viaduct.
She queues; I watch snowflakes duel with gravity
before a sawdust smell, the pet shop, a puppy
that will die of distemper trembling near the stove
in our cold house of post-war rationing
after we carry her home in a box through
a frosted realm illuminated by daytime headlights.
When Utrillo saw his 1934 scene in winter light
he could be excused for believing trouble was over
but the next war changed so much between then
and those dying days of dogs before our emigration.
His picture in my beach shack speaks
of long gone snow, shadows that still come and go.
Ian C. Smith lives in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria. His work has appeared in, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal, foam:e, Rabbit Journal, The Weekend Australian, &, Westerly. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy.