The Shell Collector (Peter Topley)

Alighting from the bus at Bromley North,
The tall Victorian stairs wrapped around
The shimmering window lit dust,
And there in a room in an ancient chair
With leather patches and cat clawed cushions
Sat an elderly man in a clerical tie
With a face of young, impressive, happiness,
Not shocked by the white wild hair,
Who’s delight as he spoke of hunting for shells
Shone in secure clear eyes.
Journeys of memory to desert springs,
Ancient rivers and biblical walls,
Greeting his young wife to be at Kerman
From her sore trek across the intolerant sand
With Persian muleteers from Bundar Abbas,
To searching under cobwebbed blackberry patches
In Kent and promising to revisit the place with me
If he was ever "up to it again", which he never was.

Out of the black wood, cabinet lined, room
With effortless extending drawers of glass-topped treasure
That were boxes from Havana cigars,
Patent pills and thin Egyptian cigarettes,
There lay the records of a life in full measure,
And the shells with labels in a minute hand,
A way of living that at age eleven
I was to find with awe and later understand.

11/1/03 © Peter Topley 2004. All rights reserved.

This poem was written about the Revd. H.E.J. “Bert” Biggs. (1895-1973). An expert on the mollusca of the Near and Middle East, he spent a number of years  working with the Church Missionary Society in what was then Persia (modern day Iran). Towards the end of his life he founded and ran the junior section of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, which I joined in 1970.