Red Whistle, Orange Lifejacket

Well you say you don't need me
to walk with you anymore.
That's okay because I have things to do,
things I put off because I couldn't put off
you growing up.

I get home too early and the rhythm is out.
You turn your small back and wave,
and I longed for this expanse, I did –
it won't take me long to get used to it.
I'll be 20 again, doing two loads of washing in a row
and thinking I was busy.

I guess you can cross roads alone.
I used to be able to but now something is missing
without your little hand in mine.
I'm forever in Island Bay trying to get across the rivers:
Liffey, Mersey, Tiber, Clyde.

We can both fit in a dinghy, nothing fancy.
You're reaching out for the fluffy stalk of the toetoe
on council land. I'm supposed to be morally instructive,
I'm supposed to say you can't take it,
but I need a flag for this historic landing.

When we get there, I unclip my arms from around you.
I take my fluorescent, inflated self – provider of safety
and special cushioning at the back of the neck.
I take that stuff and leave you with the dangling red whistle
and no instructions, moral or otherwise,
because those whistles were so plastic, so weak
they barely made a sound.

Am I shouting this from water to land?
If I am it's because this is how it's always been
since you moored your first cell inside my body:
If you need me, you just breathe.

Frances Samuel is the author of Sleeping on Horseback (2014) and Museum (2022), both published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. She worked as an exhibition writer at Te Papa for more than a decade, which inspired many of the poems in Museum. Frances lives in Wellington with her family.

Frances comments: 'This poem starts with a walk to school and draws on other memories: my dad almost falling out of a dinghy trying to grab a toetoe; me being squashed into an old lifejacket as a small child and feeling unconvinced by the safety potential of the faded plastic whistle. With parenting, I think we have certain tools and abilities or nonabilities, but something stronger always exists underneath that can overcome our limitations. And maybe that's similar for me with writing. There are times when I'm not able to write, but when I do start again I find that everything I need is there.'

​Poem source details >


Te Herenga Waka University Press author page

Radio interview with Theo MacDonald (2022)