Def. Fake or counterfeit”
“How can you think to read poetry”, his critical, grey, bespectacled eyes seem to say, “in a voice like that?”
We sit in the dustiness of the late afternoon, discussing words of no great importance, with great importance. A shaft of amber light pierces a windowpane. It is hazy, late spring. The sky is dappled pink and bronze by the setting sun. The office, bare except for the bookcase which towers in one corner, a faded print which lurks in the other and the desk at which he sits is covered in an elegant canopy of dust. The half-empty tin mug on the windowsill confirms my expectations, speaking of late nights and early mornings and education. And me, here for the first time, wearing my best clothes and my old brogues. I am just 18, I am no longer blonde. I slept in by just over an hour and was late for the first train. 5 slim cigarettes this morning in the rain. Nerves keep drying my lips and I reapply my too-pink lipstick as necessary with every 6th minute. Down to London now for the 5th time on my own. I try not to look at maps in public anymore. I’m trying to belong.
Between us lies a sheaf of ruled paper. A letter, curled at the edges. My scrawled hand in smudged blue ink, which he ignores. He fingers the cigarette box in his ill-fitting suit pocket, runs a hand through unkempt hair. Doctorates and plaudits. Applause on a wet Wednesday morning, at the Sorbonne. Golf clubs. Jaguars and analysts. Hiking holidays. Red wine and reading rooms. That sort of thing. I chew gum.
“How can you think to read anything in a voice like that?”
The carriage clock on the windowsill chimes out round vowels in agreement. They hover in the air, triumphant over an empire, Sloane Square and the white cliffs of Dover. World Wars and Woolworths. Listen to me, it says. Typewriters and teacups. I command respect. Listen. The ticking of my watch is flat.
A common fly ascends a windowpane, a coal black smudge against the shimmering horizon of the City. Sirens hurtle helter-skelter by on the busy street outside. Below the Big Issue seller is calling, his voice hoarse and broken above the humming of engines and taxi drivers who never stop talking. The heavy tramp of Chelsea boots on the pavement. The office workers returning home to bitter wives and pregnant girlfriends. Long evenings stretch into the distance. Mastermind and dry white wine, and debt which accumulates in angry white envelopes in locked drawers and is never spoken of, but which wakes them, persistently, in those few minutes before the first light cracks upon the curtains. But not now: for now, the day is drawing to a deliberate close. Now, the theatre-goers and cocktail drinkers will spill elegantly out onto the lamp-lit streets beneath the speckled sky, talking about the Tate and the FTSE forecast and that dreadful article in The Guardian about Scottish independence and the deficit and the down-trodden North. More war crimes against humanity. More war, war, war and Nigella Lawson.
Meanwhile I am uncomfortably aware of a shelf of poets, dead poets, in the far corner by the door. Thin pages, yellow, stuck together, jealously hiding their print forever. I’m forbidden with my quaint north-east accent and my peculiar ways to read even the dustcover aloud. My glottal stop butchers Baudelaire. I twist the cheap ring on my finger, fidget in the green chair. Me, I was always such a bad writer, bad poet. I could barely string a sentence together.
Such a voice, Shakespearean and deep. Elegance. Permanence. Resonance.
“So why don’t you begin?”
A simple question.
Back to the council estates where I was raised. I pull back the curtains and let you in. Dean Graham took an overdose in a clapped out Astra down beside the quarry. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last. It was a Thursday, I remember. Heroin, I heard, but it could have been anything. It was two days before they found him, but there was no one there to stop him. He had a son. A small boy, owning nothing, hurting no one. And Dean, only 31.
Back to anonymity, to existing on the periphery of existence. Back to universal shrugs. Those were the days when I was a shadow. A shy girl. Boxed in a box bedroom, dreaming of James Dean. I still listened to the radio. The provincial town, half knocked down. The busstops and the butchers shops. The ancient local women, hobbling on bad feet to the social club, smoking badly rolled cigarettes, exchanging bad memories, bad luck and bad lovers.
And you and your Harris tweed, your European holidays. Your opera, your elegance, your lack of television. Your stern wife, with her good family and her box jackets and her formidable glare. You are oblivious to such things, and after all, why should you not be and what does it matter? I sit on the bus each day with my battered brogues and my shabby mac, wearing my shyness like a badge. My discomfort is palpable and the teenagers on the backseats swig stolen wine and stare.
My mother says: “What do you want to do that for? Universities make monsters, men out of women and women out of men. What do you want to do that for?”
My father says: “Mick’s eldest son works for Procter & Gamble, makes a nice fortune. There’s nothing of anything in what you want to do. I can’t understand it. I can see the point in pictures, but not in poems. I couldn’t never concentrate on books. I couldn’t never.”
My mother says: “What do you want to do that for? Why don’t you do something proper with yourself? What did you go and do that for?”
Perhaps I don’t want to be proper. Perhaps I don’t.
I can begin, if you want me to. I can show you the terraced streets, the trainers looped around a telephone wire. Back, back to the young mothers. Each morning, they walk in pyjamas to the corner shop for 6-packs and cigarettes. I stand behind with a cherry cola and a heavy heart. There is a pub band, playing every Thursday, at The Road End. ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and ‘Born in the USA’. Because the Night Belongs to Lovers and The Bee-gees. Muffled drumbeats, screams and cheers. Someone inside is beaten, someone outside falls in love.
And I’m the one that got away. And this it and I am here.
My eyes have never needed glasses; I can see every mucky finger print, every misspelt word. I’m looking at the paper, at the words that I have written. I’m looking at it, now. I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me, with interest. Curiosity, lust and disgust.
“So why don’t you begin?”
Graffiti on a grey garage wall says ‘Snide’.
I have worked and I have worked and I have worked to come here. And I know it all. But still I see that word: Snide. I see it clearly. I see that I have written it, in my messy blue hand on the desk, over and over again. Snide. I have written it over the top of everything. I have written it over Tolstoy, I have written it over Proust. Why can I not forget the past, when I am sure that it was never mine? I’m so clever with my Shakespearean rags and my tarot pack and my tarot pack. I can do anything. I can do anything at all. And yet now I know I can never leave.
“There are no colloquialisms in Keats”.
I look to the mug on the windowsill, to the carriage clock. I look to the grey eyes, the bespectacled, critical grey eyes with mine, and there are so many – so many, many things that I want to say. But heartache and the April rain keep on pulling me backwards, and I can’t explain it all away.
Lyndsey Skinner is a writer and blogger based in the North East. She was shortlisted for the Observer / Anthony Burgess Prize 2017.