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Black-and-white photographs captured Mam best:
Attacking her crossword puzzles with zest.
Later she’d solve them with me on her lap.
She still tells how she’d left one uncompleted
On the chair for just a moment, defeated
By a clue; and when she returned, the gap
Had been filled with the squared-off, tidy scrawl
Of a four year-old. I’d stand, embarrassed-proud,
As every visitor and relative was wowed;
But as my brains slowed down to the sloth’s crawl
Of prodigal and dissolute teenage years,
More and more the story pressed like a weight
Upon my shoulders. How I used to hate
Her telling and retelling it to my peers
And new or potential girlfriends — verbatim!
Pretending to be shrewd and versatile,
I gave up doing crosswords for a while
But never faced her with an ultimatum
To stop recounting it. I must have feared
The best of me belonged with that young child,
That my quota of glory had been piled
High then and spent, and that subsequent years
Were just steps down further into mediocrity.
Visiting her recently in hospital,
I flicked her paper open on the puzzle-
Page and caught anew that monochrome beauty:
The fresh grid’s half-rotational symmetry;
The deafening white noise of near-vacant squares
With tiny numbers in the corners there
Suggesting an exponential difficulty;
And buzzing clues, all vying for attention
Like calves or young chickens in a battery
Or milk and white chocolates in a locked chocolaterie.
Whose pen first would break the high surface tension?
That’s when I saw what the spiel must have meant
For her: beyond maternal pride in a chip
Off the old block, she’d found cryptic comradeship
Startlingly close to home, a square-eyed friend
To help with anagrams and synonyms
In The Guardian, The Independent, The Times.