We’re on the phone and he says I just came
hard over you. I’m by the window,
not just clothed but cardiganed – though
he doesn’t know – and I realise
the mug of tea in my hand was a mistake:
this conversation’s bridge
too far. He’s got this voice, see – like treacle
over gravel, like vowels pulled up
at the pit-head and consonants whipped
like the blue sparks under a train. He’s
six foot two, six hundred miles away
and I’m weak for his filthy vocabulary.
The day’s failed. The light’s gone creamy,
smudged – the edges of the glasses dulled
as they dry on the board, my tea
gone cold in its chipped mug – I’ve been holding it
halfway to my face, listening shocked
and still as though to a break-in at the house
next door. But there’s only him saying oh
baby, fuck – and I look up, past the scrubbed
windowsill with its pile of books,
past the drying-green poles, their slung line
beaded with pegs. Above the woods, a flank
of rain is gathering, bruise-black: it draws up
in front of the sun like a limousine.
In a minute, I’ll watch it take the hill, undo
the road’s chaste sash, the fancy up-dos
of the trees all tossed, all loosed. You’re the
best, he says, in his hot, burned-sugar voice,
and I hear that he’s tired from work – perhaps
he wants a cigarette – yes, he’ll light one when I’ve left
and feel the fist of that old need unclenching,
too. I want to say I love you, but I don’t.
The rain is all around me now, it’s swallowing
the houses whole. It’s really going for it
out here I say, almost without meaning to –
you should see. It’s really coming down hard.
Moniack Mhor, Inverness-shire
In the dream I walk up to you
again and again – always
the same smile, white light
of Waverley Station at noon,
everything diffuse, the bad
patter of the tannoy going
Arbroath. Montrose. Stonehaven.
I wake up wanting
whatever’s next: a fight? A kiss? Perhaps
some nearby room where I
can drop to my knees and thank you
for things you don’t even know
you’ve done, with faltering skill.
But instead it’s daylight
again and you’re just one
more man I’m trying
not to get drunk and phone.
It’s like the world hasn’t noticed
it’s March: hail blasting
loud music at the sanguine hills.
The grass is blown and tongued
with frost: doormat-coarse.
This is the real north, snowflake,
everything seems to say.
Last night, I got as far as
my arms round your neck.
You were tall, like important
people are in dreams, and –
even disappearing – handsome.
The women who’ve loved you
I imagine them lined up at the bar
you used to tend. That was ten years
before I met you – you were
so slim, must have been
so green. They’re drinking
something called a Greta Garbo: sickly
mustard-yellow slush like nightclub doorway
snow, plus sugar and a twist. The first
has got her shit together, just about –
when she says that she’s over you, the others
think it might legit be true, and hate her
stinking blood. They drink like siblings
at a funeral, like jurors who’ve condemned a man
to death. They drink to the memory
of their names rolled on your tongue;
the chest they lay their heads upon
in the hot night; the Valentine’s Days;
your lentil and potato soup, a cure
for anything. When I walk in, they look up
from their neon drinks, their eyes shark-black:
I did this, I’m the reason. They’re all wearing
whatever outfit they got dolled up in
for your first date – all the jewellery
you ever bought – they’re laden
with trinkets, counting loose change
of their jewelled rings against the cocktails’ stems.
And I’m no different – this is that dress,
the polyester seventies floral-printed disaster –
yes, who knows quite what possessed me,
but it worked alright, you peeled it off
that night the way I hoped you would. I threw it out
years back, but here it is again, a little
tight around me now – my boots pinching,
and my wrists, like theirs, all silvered
and cuffed. It takes a minute, but they know
what I have done. I wait, damp handkerchief
balled in my fist, already lifting my puffed
face to catch the barman’s eye, and as if
they’ve discussed it – and all agreed –
they scuff up, pull another stool,
make room for one more.
Claire Askew’s poems have appeared in numerous places, including The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review and PANK, and on Radio 3’s The Verb. Her debut collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016, and shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award. Claire is also a novelist, and her debut novel in progress won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She is currently at work as the 2017 Jessie Kesson Fellow, lives in Edinburgh, and can be found on Twitter @onenightstanzas.
Image credit: grassrootsgroundswell