I was in Barcelona with two Irishmen
(it’s a long story, and I’ve forgotten it)
who cut clerical collars from their menu cards
and put on with them a pious expression
so that the women, young and not so young,
came to them with their stories, their needs
and their debts of gratitude.
And they were drawn to sit very close,
and sometimes to weep, and be comforted.
And it was uproariously dull for me,
but like most of my kind I am fiercely inspoken,
and made a show of merriment, which went unnoticed.
Such larks! And they were lovely men,
and the women who came to them sorrowingly lovely.
No harm in it, no one the worse,
except the waiter, whose protest at the torn menus
was waved away, and who saw the streetside confessional
and crossed himself, though he knew
the collars were improvised, the thing a sham,
yet he saw only how tenderly the priestly arm
was laid around a shoulder, and crossed himself again,
the cost of the menus forgotten, and I
burned with boredom and my face hurt from smiling.
One was called Peter, I think, the other had a beard,
and Barcelona was wasted on all three of us.
He came in to sit on the side of the bath and watch her.
He was smoking and flicking ash into the basin.
Perhaps we should get married, she said.
They had worn her down. They never said sin,
but they found it irregular. Like the fungus
growing behind the pipes, pale and furtive,
which her father had inspected and pronounced
Not Proper Mushrooms. Like the old cast iron bath
that stayed cold however hot you got the water.
It would be good to have it over with, she thought.
It wasn’t the white dress, but the clear mind,
the pure air she would breathe. If you want, he said,
and stubbed out his fag on the soap dish.
So she lay like a corpse in the mingled steam and smoke,
staring up at the illegitimate mushrooms,
and felt the Victorian chill rise through her.
He carried me onstage in a cheap valise.
A whipcrack of smoke, and I stepped out
in crimson satin slit to the thigh.
I’d never get into it now. Let them come
sniffing and leering, wanting the secret.
Magic, I’ll say, but they won’t get it.
The valise was made of cardboard and vinyl,
smelled of sweat and depilating cream.
I had to bite my hand when he snapped it shut.
At least if he’d thrown knives at me
I’d have seen them coming.
But things were different back then:
when the show was over,
we fucked in all the dressing rooms,
the brandy made me tall and magnificent.
Oh maestro, maestro, you were good to me.
You never tried to saw me in half,
though I know you’d have liked to.
Jean Sprackland is a poet and writer. She is the winner of the Costa Poetry Award in 2008, and the Portico Prize for Non-Fiction in 2012. Her books have also been short- listed for the Forward Prize, the TS Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Award.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.