Can I come in? I saw you slip away.
Hors d’oeuvres depress you, don’t they? They do me.
And cocktails, jokes … such dutiful abandon.
Where the faithful observe immovable feasts
– boat races, birthdays, marriages, martyrdoms –
we’re summoned to our lonely ceremonies any time:
B minor, the mouldiness of an old encyclopedia,
the tinny sun snapping off the playground swings,
these are, though we can’t know this, scheduled
to arrive that minute of the hour, hour of the day,
day of every year. Again, regular as brickwork
comes the time the nurse jots on your chart
before she pulls the sheet across your face. Just so
the past falls open anywhere – even sitting here with you.
Sorry. You remind me of a girl I knew.
I met her at a party much like this, but younger, louder,
the bass so fat, the night so sticky you could drown.
We shouted at each other over soul
and cold beer in the crowded kitchen and l, at least,
was halfway to a kiss when she slipped
her arm around her friend.
I worked at liking him and it took work,
and it never got any easier being harmless,
but we danced that night like a three-way game of chess
and sang to Curtis Mayfield pumped so loud
that when I drove them home they could hardly
whisper to invite me up.
Their black walls smirked with Jesus on black velvet
– Jesus, Elvis, Mexican skeletons, big-eyed Virgins,
Rodin’s hands clasped in chocolate prayer –
an attitude of décor, not like this room of yours.
A bottle opened – tequila with a cringe of worm –
and she watched me.
Lighting a meltdown of Paschal candles
she watched me. He poured the drinks rasping
We’re seriously into cultural detritus. At which, at last,
she smiled. Ice cubes cracked. The worm sank in my glass.
And all that long year we were joined at the hip.
I never heard them laugh. They had,
instead, this tic of scratching quotes in the air –
like frightened mimes inside their box of style,
that first class carriage from whose bright window
I watched the suburbs of my life recede.
Exactly one year on she let me kiss her – once –
her mouth wine-chilled, my tongue a clumsy guest,
and after that the invitations dwindled.
By Christmas we were strangers. It was chance
I heard about the crash. He died at once.
Black ice and rain they said. No news of her.
I can’t remember why I didn’t write.
Perhaps I thought she’d sold the flat and left.
Some nights midway to sleep I’m six years old.
Downstairs it’s New Year’s Eve. Drink and shrieks.
But my mother’s lit the luminous plastic Jesus
to watch me through the night, which is why
I’ve got my pillow wrapped around my head.
I never hear the door. And when she speaks,
her thick-tongued anger rearing like a beast
I feel my hot piss spreading through the sheets.
But when I wake, grown up, it’s only sweat.
But if I dream I bleed. A briar crown,
a fist prised open wide, a steadied nail,
a hammer swinging down – the past falls open
Ash Wednesday evening.
Driving by, I saw her lights were on.
I noticed both their names still on the buzzer
and when I rang I heard her voice. Come in –
her nose was broken, her front teeth gone,
a rosary was twisted round her fists –
– Come in. I’ve been saying a novena.
Inside, each crucifix and candle shone,
transfigured in her chrysalis of grief.
She spoke about the crash, how she’d been driving,
how they had to cut her from the wreck…
and then she slipped and called me by his name.
Of those next hours I remember most
the silences between her sobs, the rain
against the skylight slowly weakening
to silence, silence brimming into sleep and dawn.
Then, having lain at last all night beside her,
having searched at last that black-walled room,
the last unopened chamber of my heart,
and found there neither pity nor desire
but an assortment of religious kitsch,
I inched my arm from under her and left.
Since then, the calmest voice contains her cry
just within the range of human hearing
and where I’ve hoped to hear my name gasped out
from cradle, love bed, death bed, there instead
I catch her voice, her broken lisp, his name.
Since then, each night contains all others,
nested mirror-within-mirror, stretching back from then
to here and now, this party, this room, this bed,
where, in another life, we might have kissed.
Thank you, my friend, for showing me your things –
you have exquisite taste – but let’s rejoin your guests
who must by now be wondering where you’ve gone.