From The London Magazine March 1966
Two Wives and a Widow
A modern version from the Middle Scots of William Dunbar
If one night in the year is romantic,
that night is Midsummer’s Eve. Such a night, it was…
about midnight, I went out by myself and came
to a flower garden behind a hawthorn hedge. On a bough,
this crazy bird was splitting its sides,
singing. And such a scent of flowers.
The grass wet with dew, the nightingales shouting.
A night for lovers. Alone as I was,
lonely, I was. Then I heard voices,
loud, laughing voices talking in the garden.
It was a party. Whose party? So I climbed into the hedge
(though the thorns hurt dreadfully) and peered
through the branches.
—————- I saw three women
with flowers in their long, yellow hair, loose hair
hanging over their shoulders. They smoothed their green dresses
with long, white fingers—such beautiful women,
such sweet and gentle faces. Three human flowers
among the roses, the lilies. Two were married, I knew them—
respectable, fashionable. The other a widow.
They had a table in front of them,
with bottles and glasses,
they sat talking and drinking. And the more they drank,
the more they talked.
They talked freely.
—————- Yes, freely.
‘Now,’ said the widow, ‘we’re all girls together.
Let’s play the truth game, nothing
but the truth. About husbands, our husbands,
—————- Both of you
married out of the schoolroom; any regrets?
Or did you put away pleasure
with your wedding dresses, find you’d eaten it up
with the wedding cake and not a crumb left?
What about other men?
Would you choose different if you had the chance?
And how about
the ” ’til death do us part” bit?’
One woman, elegant, she was, refined, said :
`Marriage !’ and she spat.
`They call it blessed but I say it’s hell!
I’d leave him tomorrow, if I had the chance!
A change is as good as a rest, they say;
you certainly need a rest from marriage.
—————- Why should it
last more than a year?
Why should two people stay
tied together when all the time they pull
—————- in different ways?
You know the old story—how the birds
pick a new friend each year.
The birds know the score !
—————- Us girls
would be in clover if we could have
a nice new boyfriend any time we liked
—————- and send the ones
who didn’t come up to scratch packing
wit h a kick in the backside!
Oh, how I’d dress tip
and go alit and about, theatres, concerts, parties,
peacocking about, showing myself off
where all die young men were. I’d shop around
for someone to keep me warm at nights
—————- and then go window-shopping
for next year’s boy. And he could stand in
on the current one’s off-nights, when he couldn’t
make it. I’d go for young boys, pretty boys,
but—you understand—capable. I’d gobble them all up,
bones and all.
I’m tied to a shadow, a worm, a blind old man
so shagged out he can’t do anything but talk. He’s nothing
but a bagful’ of snot.
He can’t even keep his trousers clean. He’s always
scratching himself, scratching everywhere, no shame –
I could burst into tears when he kisses me.
His five o’clock shadow bristles like pig-hide (but its
the only thing about him that can stand up to attention—
if you get my meaning.)
—————- He’s always talking-
oh, he can jabber away all night. But when we get down to it,
it’s a fiasco. When he gets hold of me, it’s as bad
as if some nigger bastard were jumping on me.
But I can’t get away from him.
He’s got some horrible habits,
the dirty old devil.
When he starts smirking with the love-light in his eyes
(he’s got big sores all round his eyes,
they weep with pus) I could vomit all over him.
He grins and fidgets away
like a poxed old cart-horse sniffing after the mares.
But when that doddering old fool fancies a bit,
then I really get on my high horse, I do.
He can never get one hand fumbling up between my legs without putting the other in his pocket.
Though he’s never a bit of good to me in bed, I get what satisfaction I can from his cheque-book,
—————- the morning after.
Even if he’s mad for it,
I won’t let him near me until he promises me a present—
a nice silk scarf, or a pretty new dress, or maybe a ring.
Or else he’s got to go and whistle for it.
But in spite of it all, he’s a bad bargain;
he always botches the job.
He’s jealous, too, and spiteful. He’s always on the watch
in case I’m getting up to mischief on the sly.
He’s been randy enough in his time, he knows all the tricks.
And he’s dying to catch me out in one of them.
He knows all right
that youth calls to youth (as they say)—
and I could rub up against him for a year and a day
and never come.
Pray God you girls don’t get a husband like mine!’
How they all laughed when she finished,
and had another round of drinks.
The widow wiped her mouth and said to the other woman,
`How about you? How do you get on? Don’t
spare us the gory details!
And I’ll into the witness box after you
and tell all.’
`Now you just keep quiet about my affairs,’ said the second,
`not a word to a soul ! Thank God, no eavesdroppers.
Out with all the poison, it’ll do me good.
He’s a drag, a slag, a nothing, my husband.
I hate him. Yes, truly hate him.
Oh, he’s young, yes, and handsome, yes—
and he used to be a great one for women, always
rolling about in some tart’s bed. But that was
before I knew him.
—————- And the consequence was,
he’s sucked dry!
His thing is useless, worn out,
like an old boot that’s been walked to death.
Oh, we’ve been to all the doctors, massage, pills, hormones,
psychoanalysis, even—but no joy.
And would you believe it, he still tries it on!
I’ve even found him trying to screw some pick-up
in my own bed.
Not that he’s got a chance. But he dresses so nicely, he’s
got such a way with him, a real ladies’ man—you’d think
he’d be at it all the time. He’s always bragging
how he can make a girl come ten times without stopping.
Words, all words.
—————- He’s like a dog
who can’t stop sniffing the bushes, cocking
his leg though he doesn’t want a pee.
But, as I said, he’s handsome. Tall, dark and handsome—
dreamy. To look at.
When we got married and me so young, I thought
I’d got a gem, a jewel—but he turned out
just so much shining rubbish.
—————- Yes, I remember
what they say about the birds choosing new mates
every year, on Valentine’s day, isn’t it pretty.
If I could do like them, I wouldn’t wait
until February—I’d have my legs round a new man’s waist
and who cares what the neighbours say?
It was my family pushed me into it, damn them all—
and me so innocent, eager
for my pleasure (who isn’t? that’s
human nature !) I can’t sleep
for brooding. Sometimes I cry.
Then he takes me in his arms (and, oh God, I can’t help but feel
his flabby prick !) and he says: “Poor little love!
Can’t she sleep?” I’m scared he’ll try
something—you know—unnatural if all else fails
so I say, “No, darling, don’t touch,
I’ve got the heartburn.”
—————- Too true.
There’s a fire in my heart.
But I’ve got to grin and bear it although I can’t stand him.
The girl who’d suit him is one of the flinching kind
who’s scared of it, thinks it hurts
like Mummy told her. She’d never have a moment’s worry!
Well, I wish he’d married a girl like that,
who’d fancy no more than a bit of touching up now and then,
and I could climb into bed with some husky brute!’
And when she finished, once more the women laughed,
drowning their sorrows among the green leaves.
‘My turn for true confessions,’ said the widow.
‘Now you girls listen to me
and I’ll tell you how to handle a man.
—————- I must say,
I was always a bit of a one. But I knew how to hide it!
They always thought I was the sort of girl you’d marry,
you know what I mean ! A nice girl, homely.
—————- You take my advice.
Keep your noses clean. Play the “little woman”.
Do what you’re told, don’t raise your voice, keep
your thoughts to yourself and you can rule your man
with a rod of iron! You can make his life misery
and he’ll love you all the more.
And keep up appearances, dress well—it doesn’t cost anything,
your husband’ll foot the bill.
I’ve had two husbands and they both loved me.
Though I despised them, they never knew it.
The first had one foot in the grave. Old Father Time I called him.
Senile decay personified. He’d hawk and spit everywhere,
no control. But he never knew what I was thinking.
I was always kissing him, cuddling him, rubbing
ointment into his rheumatics, combing his hair (what was left
of it) and all the time
I’d be taking the piss out of him on the quiet.
I used to have a good laugh about it
behind his back. No fool
like an old fool. He thought I stroked his wrinkles
out of love.
—————- Well, I had my bit of love.
He knew how to keep his mouth shut, too.
And when things got too rough with the old man,
there was always my bit of comfort, on the side.
I was clever. I had my cake and ate it too.
And my husband even thought he’d fathered
—————- my little boy.
After him, I married into trade.
He was middle-aged, middling height—everything middling.
Nothing exceptional about him except his money and I soon got my hands on
I threw myself away on him, really; and never let him
—————- I pounced on every dropped ‘h’;
he had a good talking to every time
he said ‘serviette’ or belched in company. Common, he was.
I used to say : “What else can you expect
from a counter-jumper?”
—————- I’d buried my nice ways
with my first husband. I’d talk a lot about my first—
that used to get him down. I told him straight out
what a favour I’d done him by marrying him,
only taken him on
—————- out of the kindness of my heart.
I had a new line, you see, and he fell for it.
He was right under my thumb.
He’d do anything to please me, fetching and carrying—
but he did nothing right.
—————- It’s a funny thing, though,
I’d been quite fond of him when we were courting.
I was the lord and master; I ran the show.
And I despised him for letting me—fancy
being under a woman’s thumb like that!
How could I respect him?
But I never let go at him completely till I’d got my children
named as his heirs, legally, in writing,
and his own kids by his other wife heirs
to damn all.
—————- After that, I ran him a race!
I even made him stay at home and keep house
and I took over his business.
He was a laughing stock.
He thought he’d try and buy me off
with all sorts of presents, Paris frocks,
scent, jewellery—nothing but the best.
I never said no. “Tak’ all, gie nowt” as they say up North;
I’d get geared up like a model in the clothes he paid for
and go out looking for new lovers—
—————- and I found them.
When I was in bed with him, I’d
pretend it was some other man thrusting away inside.
what fun could it have been? with him?
He was never much cop.
Well, he’s dead and rotten now
and I can enjoy myself quietly, in my own way.
—————- The world thinks
I’m grieving, still. All in black, pale but interesting,
men find me . . . disturbing. I’m giving piety a whirl.
I go to church. I hide behind my prayerbook
and peck over the top at all the nice young men
—————- and they get the message
as often as not.
If a friend of my husband’s sees me, I squeeze out a tear or two.
How sorry they are for me! “You can see
how much she feels it.” I like
to keep things looking proper.
That’s the secret—keep things looking proper.
Keep our own council, be circumspect.
—————- I’ve a boyfriend on the quiet
to cheer up a poor widow, yet all the county
thinks I’m a good woman, isn’t it marvellous?
—————- But the best of all
is at parties.
—————- They come flocking round me,
I’m a prize, a fine catch.
They talk so well, bring me little gifts,
make speeches, flatter me, here a kiss, there—
some of them even have the nerve,
the wicked things,
to shove themselves, stiff as a board, into my hand!
or maybe I feel it pressing against my back …
I’m a merciful woman, I’m kind; I don’t like to cause pain.
I pinch the ones next to me, just in fun,
lean hard on the one behind, play
footsy with another
and smile at the ones too far away for anything else.
—————- A bit of encouragement
doesn’t do any harm.
Take one, take all—why not? I’m my own mistress.
I’d be rude to say no.
So that’s the story of my life and you pay heed to the moral!’
The women said she was such a good teacher; they would
do as she said, in future. Sweetly, prudently,
they’d betray their husbands, Judas-like kissing, caressing,
waiting for widowhood.
Meanwhile, how dry their throats were! So they drank up.
Day dawned after their pleasant night. A lark singing,
a soft, fresh, melting morning, the mist dissolving.
The fields breathed clover, a skyfull of birds chorussing
for joy. The scent of grass, the sound
of the streams running. Clear, lovely morning—
it brings back hope, even to the saddest.
Bedtime for the elegant ladies. Home, they went,
through the flowers, yawning, and I
sat down to report their talking, as you have heard it.
Dear reader, let me put it to you.
Which of these women would you choose for your woman
if you should marry one of them?
In a burst of creativity between the years of 1963 and 1966, Angela Carter, more usually known as a novelist, essayist and short story writer, composed much of the poetry which appears in the new volume Unicorn. Collected for the first time by Rosemary Hill, these five poems contain the seeds of what would characterise her later work; a subversive use of folk and fairy tale coloured by a wickedly funny sense of humour. The London Magazine originally published ‘Two Wives and a Widow’, which appears in Unicorn, in March 1966, during the most prolific period of Carter’s poetic inspiration.
Unicorn: the poetry of Angel Carter is published on the 5th November by Profile Books