HOWARTH Silver Birch period photo
Keeping Afloat
by Stephen Howarth

I quit school, or school quit me, and
I needed an income. There was no grand plan
beyond the intention to be a writer,
being sure my career would be with the pen;

but penury demanded pounds and pence.
A chance arose, and within days I was
a milkman, an invisible but essential backbone
of the community. With my alarm set for 3 a.m.,

I was daily in the dairy by 3.30 to load the milk float —
my wagon! — with a ton of fresh-bottled liquid.
My hair was long then, worn carefree in
a ponytail to halfway down my back . . .

. . . and there were bright pearly mornings when
I gazed out over the vale, trees punctuating
the sea of mist below, and at the hilltop, free of traffic,
I released the brake and sped to 70 miles an hour,

propelled by that massive weight of milk in
a float designed to do 20 max. Gliding to a halt, I ran up
the paths, put down the orders, picked up the empties,
and gave so much away: potatoes, bread,

extra items I forgot to record — and when queried,
had to pay for from my hard-earned wage. Once,
reversing inadvertently, I crushed the foot
of a colleague. Once, I was surprised by a sleepy

customer who appeared dreamlike in her nightdress,
reaching to take the milk from my hands.
Once, I was charmed by a little girl who walked
together with her sister as I ran up the path:

“Hello big milkman ponytail man!” I returned her smile —
then, as I ran back to the float, heard her puzzlement:
“But — mans don’t have ponytails!” “Hush,” said her sister.
Now the ponytail’s long gone. The pen delivered.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: I’m sorry that no photo exists of me as “Big Milkman Ponytail Man,” one of my proudest titles. The registration plate on this float shows it was operational a year later than my first job, and unlike this lucky milkman I never had an assistant; but otherwise it’s very like the one I used every day. Loading a ton of milk by hand and running to make every delivery was a great way to keep fit — better in that regard than writing . . .

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I’ve often been slightly doubtful that a poem can write itself; an internal voice reminds me that “poiema,” the Ancient Greek root of poem, means “a thing made”: words carefully chosen, stanzas carefully crafted to meet one or another set of rules. But “Keeping Afloat” is an exception — not solitary but unusual for me — and it was instantly evoked by the “My First Job” prompt. It obeys no formal structure and really is a poem that seemed to write itself. The episodes within it are all true; the major one omitted is the recurring nightmare I had at the time — of my milk float crashing through my bedroom door to tell me I was late for work.

HOWARTH Silver Birch current photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born and brought up in England, Stephen Howarth is part-English, part-Scottish, and half-Shetland. He has a Master’s degree with Distinction in creative writing from Nottingham Trent University. He has been a professional author of history almost all his working life. His subjects are wide-ranging but he is particularly known for naval history, notably including To Shining Sea, his history of the U.S. Navy. Currently, he has 15 major books and more than 25 minor ones to his credit. His poetry has been published in the English language and in the Shetland dialect. He has a special liking for Southern California and its invigorating poetical community.