First Catch Your Poet
The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present First Catch Your Poet by Susie Maguire - read more about Susie Maguire.
It was as well that the object of Mara’s obsession was a writer. Had he been an acrobat, her fear of heights would have been a hindrance to her pursuit. Had he been a dancer, her flat feet and softly rounded body would have made her look, in his elegant entourage, like a pelican amongst flamingos. Had he been a famous American film actor, her small savings might have expired before she’d placed her hands and feet in his cement imprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and in that country her amateur status would have been spotted immediately.
That he was a poet, an Irish poet, a Dubliner with deep brown eyes hidden behind a curtain of bedraggled hair, a humorous mouth with a downward curve to it, legs draped in corduroy rubbed bare, torso protected by layers of Viyella and wool and tweed, that he was such a person living in such a place as her own city, frequenting the pubs and bookshops in a tiny radius and so regularly wandering alone with his notebook, this appeared to her to be tantamount to self-election. Mara was confident that while true poets do not court public approbation they yearn for spiritual communion and for admiration. Poets seldom jog, climb tall buildings, own their own helicopters, have bodyguards, or live in gated communities, and this makes them relatively easy to catch.
The momentous opportunity for Mara to lay eyes on her Poet occurred in a pub by the name of Jackson’s, situated on a corner of dockland now primped into quaintness; it was noted for the excellence of its beer and for Friday night feasts of Jazz and Poetry. These events were usually attended only by fellow performers, their fierce wives, aspiring musicians and writers, the mentally ill, or the very, very lonely. Mara herself had never before frequented the place, but Sharon, a work colleague seven months pregnant, was about to take maternity leave, and her flat was within easy waddling distance.
Mara prepared carefully for the evening out, squeezing herself into a nice skirt, finding new tights, polishing her teeth. She unbound her daytime plaits to let her hair fall around her in pre-Raphaelite frenzy, put her feet into a pair of low-heeled sandals and her arms into a cardigan and a short coat, and went out into the night.
When she arrived at Jackson’s she hesitated before entering. Through the steamy windows the place looked full of strangers. Only when she caught a glimpse of pink hair clasps attached to bleach-blonde tresses did she push at the revolving door. Inside, the long space was divided by a gender barrier. Men with open-necked shirts and pint glasses sat huddled at the far end of the room, their eyes straying nervously towards the unusually large and vociferous cluster of women at the door end clutching their stemmed glasses. Behind the mahogany bar, two old men in old suits dispensed alcohol, and a thin, unhappy young woman moved between the tables to collect a seemingly random choice of empty bottles and tumblers.
From the doorway, Mara waved to her group. Pregnant Sharon heaved herself off the banquette and yelled at her to ‘get one down you!’ Mara waved, nodded, proceeded to the bar and waited to be served.
Meanwhile, in the male ghetto by the toilets, the poets prepared. A minuscule dais, raised a scant ten inches above floor level and set with a microphone and a rickety chair, became the focus of their self-conscious attention. The amplifier was turned on, an Anglepoise placed on top of it, and the first reader onto the platform pulled at its neck until a weak beam of light trickled across him at chest level. The man, middle-aged and copiously bearded, cleared his throat. ‘Hello, good evening. We are the Jackson’s Poetry circle. Nice to see so many new faces. My name is Alec Murray. I will now read from a work in progress titled The Corn Field’. Again he cleared his throat, then held an exercise book open in front of him, and dipped his eyes to it.
‘Late in Summer, the Earth, her golden skirts riding high against her fertile hips....’
Unfamiliar with poetry, especially when read aloud, Mara listened for several lines before deciding that Murray’s voice was irritatingly nasal and his symbolism pretentious. She paid for a bottle of beer and joined the group of women with whom she worked five days a week in the District Council’s property department. Colleagues made space for Mara to sit amongst them. The mother-in-waiting was surrounded by torn wrapping paper, her face shiny and flushed pink as she held up tiny garments covered in frolicking ducks, kittens and daisies. Mara handed Sharon her gift, a bottle-warmer from the Argos catalogue about which thunderous hints had been dropped in past weeks, and Sharon opened it with squeals of pleasure, then placed it quickly atop the pyramid of similar items and returned to chatting. Their table held four empty wine bottles, and the overlapping and high-pitched discussion was of babies and men, of men as babies, and of men with whom they would like to practice making babies. It was simply a continuation of what they said at work in between filing and phone calls, and could be continued aloud with one part of the brain while another kept an eye out for fresher topics, such as the most attractive celebrity on television that week, or the conspiracy by fashion designers to use more Lycra than strictly necessary in tee-shirts so that women looked much fatter than they really were. These conversations, Mara felt, were beneath her, but she took part good-naturedly enough, always looking ahead to when something momentous would place her own life in the spotlight, when she might become the focus for workplace envy.
At the other end of the room, a second poet began to intone free verse on the topic of an ailing father. Mara couldn’t hear him very well, but she thought he was milking the empathetic pain, and wondered briefly if his father wasn’t perhaps faking the dementia merely to provoke the son into leaving him in peace.
Mara edged out of her corner to visit the toilets. Opening the door marked Ladies, she was surprised to hear a male voice. She checked that she had not been mistaken in the external sign, then stepped in and listened. The vestibule was just big enough to contain a sink and mirror, and the single inner cubicle, which was occupied.
‘Hello, my name is Francis Connolly, and tonight... Hello. I’m Francis, and my first poem is about ... Hello. I’d like to start, if I may, with a few words of explanation... Ah, shite, shite, shite.’
A chain clanked and an elderly cistern released its burden of water, masking the smaller sound of a bolt being drawn. A tall, sad-looking man emerged. He saw Mara and started, almost cracking his skull on the door lintel, and then gazed at her with suspicion.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, defiantly, straightening up.
‘Not at all’, said Mara, sliding past him into the cubicle and swiftly shooting home the bolt. She stood listening as he washed his hands, tore paper towels from the dispenser, and exited, closing the exterior door firmly behind him.
When she came back into the main room of the bar, the tall man was seated in front of the microphone, squinting at scraps of closely-written paper. Reasoning that to struggle across the room, thus interrupting his performance, might attract another disdainful stare, Mara paused to watch.
Connolly read without any of his recently practised introductions. His vocal quality, when amplified, had the effect of a sombre reed instrument transmitting sound at a visceral level. People stopped talking to listen.
The God Apollo was dangerous in infancy,
A child playing with fire, he rolled his
Burning hoop across uncaring skies,
The clock-hands of Time gave chase,
Wielding their puny rods to tap him into place...’
His next poem was about the generosity of dogs. Then he took a swallow from his pint and read a long piece about the internal secrets of insects. Already intrigued by his eccentric behaviour in the Ladies, warmed by his voice and accent, Mara was enchanted by his description of diaphanous wings, his exploration of markings, of soft bodies turning inside veils of silk, miraculous transformations wrought as a consequence of discreet copulation. The room seemed to throb with his ideas, the emotional depth of his imagery flooding the room like a subtle gas, filling her in places she had not considered to be void. She stood with her back to the wall, her eyes absorbing him; the locks of hair falling forward over his brows, the lips moving deliberately, his left hand tugging nervously at the thigh of his brown corduroy trousers, the dusty brogues creased at the toes, his legs tucked under him, heels raised, as if he might spring up and pace off at any moment to plough a field, catch a horse, mend a door.
This was the point at which he became the focus of Mara’s future. This was an Artist, a person who deserved attention, and in an instant she elected herself his most fervent devotee. For the rest of the evening she floated, her mind and her eyes fixed only on the Poet. When he left she came back to herself, gathered her belongings and walked home filled with a sense of purpose. Later, under the duvet, right-handed Mara ran her clumsy left hand across her breasts, its awkwardness lending the touch a novel frisson as she imagined herself caressed by Francis Connolly.
The following morning, a Saturday, Mara went early to the Poetry Library to search its database for mention of Connolly. She bought pamphlets in which some of his works were published and carefully copied details from the noticeboard about readings at which he was due to appear.
In subsequent weeks Mara followed the Poet’s progress across several venues; she made sure she was in his sightline at readings, stood close behind him in bars as he talked with other men, and shot severe looks at any woman who approached, not excepting barmaids and pensioners. Within a week the Poet appeared to notice her, or at least to recognise her face in some way. His acknowledgement was signalled by a slight lift of the chin and a frown, followed by the sliding-away of his eyes. She waited for him to speak to her, but he did not. She took this to be discretion and appreciated the gesture. At night, at home, she’d research the kinds of things he wrote about, and hold imaginary conversations in which she’d drop facts about the lifespan of the bumblebee, the distance between the earth and the moon, the approximate date of bones discovered inside a nearby Pictish fort. She watched him shop for underpants, oranges, newspapers, observed him eating soup, drinking bitter, picking idly at the wax in his ears. A further fortnight passed and she decided to change tactics. She wrote him notes, slipped them carefully into his pockets, brief but to the point. ‘I admire your work. I would like to talk to you.’ But the Poet’s pockets were stuffed with notebooks, handkerchiefs, tickets, spectacles, combs, orange peel, biscuit wrappers and the crumbs of long ago snacks, and he did not find or read these missives, at least not at times when she might somehow indicate that she was the person who’d written them.
She took to following him home at night. In the dark, she’d watch as he entered the front door of a house, glimpse - in the tiny interval between the light going on and the curtains closing - his angular figure stalk across the room, and then she’d turn away homewards to sleep, to dream of him. During these regular vigils, and the hours of following him around, Mara did not grow impatient or angry. She basked in the relationship that had formed between them, knowing that in due course it would develop into actual conversation, interspersed with laughter and fond memories about the length and strangeness of this courtship dance. In addition, she felt sure that Connolly was engaged in writing something important, and that it would be about her. He tried new material at most readings, and while none of the pieces were directly descriptive of her, nor specifically illustrative of how they felt about each other, there were moments when he looked out at the room, blinking, and she felt their connection, deep to her core.
One frosty morning, Mara - who had taken more and more days off from work to sleep, as her duties to the Poet kept her up late at night - woke with a conviction that this was the day they would actually talk. Rather than picking up his trail in the evening hours, she decided to visit him at his house in daylight, and set off on foot through the city. The journey took fifteen minutes, and as she walked she played the game of guessing what his opening line would be, and planning suitable responses. She rehearsed the kind of smile she would offer him, and reminded herself not to appear too shy.
His ground floor flat lay at the end of a street of tenements, opposite a public garden that was home to stunted trees, sickly grass and broken swings. Mara sat on a bench and gazed across at the bow-window next to his front door. At nine minutes past noon, ugly brown velvet curtains were still defending the occupant against the assault of weak sunlight. After twenty minutes more, she saw a pale hand draw aside the drapes and the long, melancholy face of Connolly appeared, yawning. He looked at the sky. He looked left. He looked right. He looked straight at her, without recognition, and then his face withdrew. Mara sat still, eyes on the dusty panes, hoping to spy him again, but for a further slow fifty-two minutes nothing occurred, nothing but pigeons circling at her feet in hope of crumbs, while the heat drained from her body. Finally, shivering, she got up, crossed the road, pressed her face to a corner of the window, and peered into the Poet’s room.
It was a small space crowded with ugly furniture. There was a divan bed, a chaos of striped blankets and flannel sheets the colour of lemon curd. Below the window, a table lay buried under strata of paper. Beyond that she could make out the blue-orange glow from an old gas fire, and wood-chipped walls masked by metal shelf units holding thousands of books, haphazardly stacked. It was a bleak vision, but Mara felt her heart skip at the notion of bringing order to it. She wanted to climb through the window there and then, set about lifting and folding, sorting and tidying. She imagined him returning to the room, his face exhibiting wonder and gratitude at the transformation; she pictured herself seated on the floor by the fire, lifting her head at the sound of his hushed voice, her Rossetti hair glinting in the firelight. The word handmaiden shimmered through her mind, as if engraved in medieval script, luminously outlined in gold, and then the word muse, and from far away came the sound of crumhorns in jubilant chorus.
Suddenly, from behind her, came an unpleasant scuffling, a whoosh of breath, and something round and hard jabbed into her left kidney. Mara quickly rotated to find a hooded figure in a blue duffle coat pointing a folded umbrella at her stomach, as if it were a short sword and she a gladiator’s foe.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ It was a female voice, shaky and furious.
Mara stood very still and replied ‘I think I’m standing here, minding my own business. What is it to do with you, and why don’t you mind yours?’
‘That is what I am doing’, said the stranger. ‘I’m minding it. Now, push off.’ She poked the air with her weapon.
Mara thought this poking action looked very silly. Deliberately, she folded her arms across her chest in a relaxed pose. ‘Why don’t you push off yourself?’ she asked. ‘I seem to have got here first, after all, don’t I?’
The woman’s face was largely hidden by the hood and the wisps of dark hair which curled around her brow and cheeks, but her small brown eyes were blinking rapidly and her lips gaped as if their owner were struck speechless. Mara took a step forward, and the stranger took a step back and down, onto the pavement. The woman’s gaze flicked to the window and back to Mara. The newcomer licked her lips. The slim black brolly in her hand trembled. She stepped back up again, levelling the folded weapon at Mara’s navel.
Mara smiled then, in what she hoped was a concerned but friendly manner. ‘Why are you nervous? You are nervous, aren’t you?’
‘I’m not nervous!’
‘Yes you are.’
‘I am not!’
‘Oh but you are. You’re very nervous. I wonder why?’
‘None of your business!’
‘How would you know what is or isn’t my business?’
‘Go away! I’m warning you.’
‘I will go when I please.’
‘Go, now, you’d better - get lost, he’ll be coming out any minute -’ Her face was twitching now with tension and anger.
‘How do you know that a man will be coming out? Are you waiting for him, then? Why?’
The woman shook her head, the hood fell back. She tugged it forward again, biting at her bottom lip like a rabbit gnawing a tender baby carrot.
‘You’re waiting for him. Ah. But he doesn’t know it,’ said Mara, almost to herself, and seeing the surprise in the umbrella-woman’s face she realised it was the truth. She had a rival.
Beside the immediate rush of disbelief that such a person - a deranged lip-gnawer and brolly-shaker - could possibly match her own feelings for the Poet, she experienced another rush - of superiority. Wit, beauty, confidence and ingenuity, with these four natural aces she could succeed against any such competitor. If she played it right. As she had to, the future of her relationship with the Poet being at stake.
‘You’ve got less than a minute,’ said the mad woman, ‘I’m warning you, for the last time. Go on, move! And don’t ever come back. Leave him to me!’
‘Okay’, said Mara, ‘Okay. I’m going.’ She skirted round the hooded figure, backed onto the pavement, and began walking slowly away along the street, not looking back until she reached the corner. When she did look, the woman had vanished, but there emerging from the front door was the unmistakably lanky shape of the Poet. Hunched into a coat, hands in pockets, he loped off along the street into the distance; and moments later, out from behind a parked car, slipped the stalker, hood up, to follow twenty paces behind him. Mara waited until they had both turned the corner at the far end of the block, spun on her heels and ran after them.
In slow, sequential chess-moves, the three figures advanced through residential streets, across busy roads, through a shopping centre, and into the centre of the city. Soon Mara recognised that they were heading in the direction of a bookshop-cafe close to the University where she’d twice before watched the Poet sitting for hours over a pot of tea, a newspaper, and his notebook. Sure enough, just a few yards ahead she spotted the Poet’s tangled mane and hawk-like profile as he entered the place and, within seconds, the blue hooded woman appeared too, standing sentinel at the window of the newsagent’s next door. Mara paused at a distance, behind a flower stall, partly to make sure she was not noticed, and partly to get clear in her head what it was she had to do. Then she went to the nearest public telephone box and made a call.
A few minutes later, Mara walked into the bookshop. She looked around her, casually, moved towards the cafe area, paused as if searching for a seat, and went over to the window table at which the Poet sat playing with a teaspoon and staring into space.
‘Excuse me’ she said, ‘may I sit here for just a minute? I’m waiting for a friend.’
He looked up. A frown passed over his forehead and then he nodded sideways, raised his eyebrows as if computing something enormously complicated, lowered them again bit by bit, and went back to the mirror-world of his teaspoon. Mara unwound her scarf, unbuttoned her jacket, and sat down on the chair across from him. She put her elbows on the table and leaned on them, chin propped on her folded hands.
‘Excuse me for interrupting,’ said Mara, ‘but I’m sure I know you from somewhere.’
The Poet lifted his face from contemplation of the teaspoon and looked at her warily. Close up, his face was older and yet permeated with a youthful openness, wisdom and innocence sandwiched by experience. He said nothing, perhaps waiting for her to supply more information. Mara narrowed her eyes at him, taking her time with this first real inventory of the man. The full bottom lip, the nasal flanges, the notched chin, the plump rosy earlobes.
‘Yes.’ she said. ‘Yes, I’ve seen you read. At Jackson’s. You’re a poet. You’re The Poet Francis Connolly, aren’t you?’ Mara spoke quietly but with a confident tone of ‘let’s not pretend you’re not famous and rightly so,’ which brought forth the simple, surprised, response - ‘Yes. That’s right.’
His voice, his voice, his voice, so close she felt it travel through his chest, down his legs, across the floor and up into her own body like the distant thundering of an underground river.
Connolly’s eyes met hers now, a swift look betraying amazement at being recognised. Inside him a violent tussle was under way between his habitual persona - the shabbily dressed, principled creator of important works who believed that personal recognition taints the soul - and the huge, starving ego of the naturally shy child who had long been regarded by his elders as a uselessly introspective creature. This inner battle brought back the frown, incrementally. Mara hurried to rescue him from that, from his indecision and doubt.
‘I so much admired that wonderful piece you wrote about the insects,’ she said. ‘I heard pictures, if you know what I mean? Those handsome wings in the moonlight. Beautiful. And did you know, the thing about the caddis fly, apparently -’
At this point, as she was struggling to remember exactly what fact it was about the caddis fly she’d hoped would snare his attention, she received a violent blow to the shoulders, followed rapidly by the frantic and repeated slap of bare hands against the side of her face. She put up one arm, half turning, and saw the blue-hooded figure, mouth open, heard the scream a fraction later, ‘No, no-o-o, get away from him, you, you, get out of here, I told you, I TOLD YOU!’
Mara contrived to slide sideways off her chair against the window and slither down to the floor, half under the table. From that position she saw the Poet’s shoes shifting on the wooden floor as he bent to peer down at her, his hair slipping across his eyes like a crown of gnarled roots, heard the movement as next he stood up, heard the rumble of his lovely, soft, Irish voice as he said ‘No no, really, I wouldn’t do that, you’ll have tea everywhere, wait, look now, give it to me and I’ll -’ heard the thin wail of her rival’s voice rise as the cafe was filled with the beat of rapidly advancing feet in heavy shoes, heard firmer, sterner voices take charge of the drama, heard the crash of the metal teapot, the thud of falling chairs. Peering through the table legs she saw two police offers take hold of the woman and pull her backwards, telling her to calm down and be sensible, and over the sound of their walkie-talkies she heard her own voice, in a kind of whisper, politely, saying ‘Help.’
When the police had put the stalker into the back of their car - ‘No, no, she’s evil, she’s a thief!’ - when they had finished taking statements - ‘I’ve never seen the woman before in my life’ - when Connolly and Mara were finally alone again, seated at a different table, over a pot of tea and slices of fruit cake supplied by the effusive management, Mara put her hand to the side of her face and winced where it met her bruises.
‘Ice,’ said the Poet. ‘You need some ice on that.’
‘That would be good’ said Mara. Connolly leapt up and strode to the counter, asked for a bowl of ice and brought it back to the table. He fumbled in his coat pockets, pulling out pieces of peel, wrappers, pencil stubs and scraps of paper, amongst them one Mara recognised. The Poet kept digging until he retrieved a dusty cotton handkerchief, and began knotting it into a bag. When he had finished tying the bundle together around the ice, he placed it not in her hands, but tentatively against her hot cheek. She winced again, it really was painful; the part of her plan she had underestimated was her opponent’s ferocity at being provoked, and perhaps the speed at which the police would arrive. Otherwise, though, things did seem to have worked.
Mara put her own hand over the poet’s large paw and pressed it gently against her skin. Water dripped unpleasantly into her ear, down her jawline and splashed onto her fruit cake. Across the Poet’s brow the deep line of his frown, which had once again appeared like the spine of a battered notebook, flexed and self-erased. He took back his damp hand, scrabbled amongst the flotsam on the table for a pencil and turned over the note on which Mara had written ‘I admire your work. I would like to meet you.’ Licking the pencil stub, he started to write, very fast, in short lines.
Head tilted, eyes soft, Mara kept watch. Once, he looked up, his eyes scanning her face almost forensically - quite unaware of the teaspoon tucked neatly behind his left ear - and then went back to the paper. When he came close to the bottom of it, Mara reached over, turned another of her notes to the blank side, and nudged it quietly into view. ‘Right,’ he murmured, and continued with his work. Across the table Mara sat on patiently, proudly, admiring her Poet.
Susie Maguire © February 2009
About Susie Maguire
Susie Maguire is a former actor, comedy performer and TV presenter who now writes fiction. She is deviser and editor of Little Black Dress, an anthology of short stories on the iconic frock, published in 2006. Her own short stories are published in two collections: Furthermore and The Short Hello. She lives in Edinburgh and is currently writing a novel.
The inspiration behind the story
The male artist is often viewed (not least by himself) as a romantic figure, a man living by his own rules, doing great and noble things; there’s also a long tradition of male writers, painters, etc, attracting female adoration, women keen to enable genius by washing its socks and making its tea. (A gender disparity that I find outrageous, naturally.) I thought about how such a woman might choose her genius, indeed whether the man in question would have any say in the matter or, once he’d been selected, if he’d actually notice it had happened other than by the appearance of bacon sandwiches at the very moment when he felt hungry. So I wrote the story to explore that theme.
Disclaimer: all poets in this story are entirely fictitious. The real poets I’ve met, and for whom I have deep respect, have mainly been quite capable of making their own tea.