Under the Counter
The Quiet Room
How to Shock the Unshockable
Wrapt in the world she is writing,
the others have grabbed the glamour jobs,
temperaments are unleashed like fighting dogs
as they embark on an anarchy of improvisation.
Bursting through the barbican of her concentration
she delivers the script to girls whose thoughts
quicken with movement straight into the action
of a fairly tale familiar to their own lives.
Catching their kinetic fever, she attempts to maintain
order, defending her work from eye-watering criticism.
Sudden as a spell, she casts herself back into
the stillness of a writer’s stone memorial,
leaving the rest of the class to disintegrate
into a chaos of egos until the bell goes.
She packs away Drama. Her chatter wiping
the surface of her mind, ready for Maths.
You divine the fortunes of each horse
like a sorcerer and his almanac whilst
I play hand bag top trumps with passing
women. At the bookies window I avert
my eyes from your stake in pin number
etiquette. Place a pound each way on a
name that takes my fancy. The winnings
rain coins like a slot machine payout.
By the third race you regard me as if
Satan is my tipster. ‘Pick another’,
I close my eyes and jab at the heraldry
of jockeys’ silks. While men in bespoke
suits and women in Chanel bray, we watch
with sniper coolness as my horse glides
to victory. You urge me to ride my luck
but I am still expecting it to run dry.
Nevertheless, leave carrying a bag ripe
with cash. Silence on the drive home as
you calculate the various odds that
fantastic as light years, I have defied this
afternoon. I ignore your parting plea to
‘play the lottery this once’. Now a suspicion
that my life’s allocation of good fortune
paid out in a single dividend that day.
UNDER THE COUNTER
Stroking fake furs convincing as clever
impressionists, my hand is pricked by
the pine needle pelt of genuine mink.
The coat is no peroxide starlet but a
hooded, calf length defence against
proper winters. Petting it, I recall when
‘a mink for the wife’ was on every husband’s
pools win list. Their cast iron glamour
outliving owners to be willed to daughters.
Now young women clearing great aunt’s
attic strike Marilyn poses before mirrors
fearful of parading them in public, but
knowing their value to less squeamish
tourists, bring them to this sanctuary.
The proprietor beckons me to a white
fox fur jacket, slipped from Bianca Jagger’s
shoulders in Studio 54 now tethered in
a cupboard. We ogle the skin like seedy
punters in a back street sex shop.
Sucked in by Jo’s cyclonic welcome, I use bouquet and card
to shield snagged cardigan and naked face from legitimate guests.
Look who it is! to the middle sister still remembered as an
adolescent snow queen, who elbows deep in washing up, beams.
I am slapped not just by the older sister’s ‘Your car is blocking the
road’ but the collapse of her Ali McGraw face into a cow’s dewlap.
Yet darting between rooms in frocks and vivid make up, the sisters
are still exotic birds spotted amongst dowdy sparrows in a British garden.
Jo settles briefly . I ache to deliver the news that will trump blissful
marriages and glamorous travel but my stammered attempts are pages
of a letter tossed away on the breeze as her attention gads about the
room . The split second her eyes alight on me I gabble my lines .
‘That’s wonderful dear’, as if to a child who has won a gold star at school,
while she turns to inquire if more blowsy cup cakes are required.
How long have you know each other? My voice lost beneath Jo’s
railway station loudspeaker, I defer to her retelling of how at 8 we were
cautioned by the local bobby for a prank, the surviving memory of two
little girls whose sagas were played out in these woods every summer.
In the lounge , Jo’s mum giggles with chums like Cranford ladies after
too much wine. Novelty tiara and balloons announcing she is 80 today.
Years ago, picking up the friendship dropped by our mothers, newsy
letters and visits have kept me in Rosemary’s journal entries .
The quiet room
You wince under the
waits’ added load.
Squashed seating arrangements anticipate
breasts squeezed into scanners.
We are blind to fresh flowers, pastel curtains and carpets.
Receptionists and nurses maintain the default cheeriness
of shopping channel presenters but
fear runs amok amongst us
strangling our instinct to chat.
The pages of ‘Hello’ are turned with shaking hands,
eyes skim bikini clad celebs,
whilst we strain for a bustling nurse to pop her head
around the door and sing your name.
A girl in Sainsbury’s uniform nuzzles
her boyfriend’s shoulder.
It must be confusing for men,
this switch from ‘Carry On’ fondling to
reluctantly tracing a lump insidious as an IED.
Afterwards, we watch other women liberated by
‘Every thing’s fine you can go’
But for one woman, the nurse in sotto voce voice,
‘Would you come through to the quiet room?’
My eyes meet yours,
we remember boxes of tissues and the private exit.
15 minutes trudge by.
‘For God’s sake’
You re-cross legs, switching your coat about you,
I sit with every muscle clenched.
Discharged suddenly, we scurry from the building, high on relief.
I slam the car door on the nurse with the valium voice
and her open invitation for me to join her in ‘that room’.
Two pitches down
people pick over a life.
Amongst crockery , a wooden box on cork screw legs,
I stroke its mahogany flanks.
Inside baby blue lining is glimpsed through
a ramshackle nest of sewing materials.
My trespassing hands are pricked by booby trapped pins,
churned contents release charity shop smell,
nevertheless £15 and it’s in the back of my car.
Back home, I turn with curator care
the pages of her log
Knitting needles set 4, brown 978
ciphers baffling as a spy’s field book.
Goose bumps as her tiny sleeping beauty thimble
is slipped onto the tip of my little finger.
Bottom of the box, her hoard
of Woman’s Realm patterns and embroidery cloths.
One bearing a few links of colour and a needle lanced,
when she was called away.
Following Sunday, the materials are a lucky dip.
A brake is applied on a buggy
‘Stop pestering and let me look’
The woman speed reads the contents
‘How much for the lot?’
She carries the container off on her infant’s lap ,
planning snatched trysts with her needlework
when the kids are asleep.
In my bedroom paper, pens and thesaurus begin
to make themselves at home in Mrs Taylor’s sewing box.
News of mother’s
death reached her
like the last sensation of a local Marilyn.
Slipping into the back pew on the first bars
of ‘The lord is my shepherd’,
she left as the curtains touched.
Then I receive her letter’s extended hand.
So on chintz sofa holding china cups,
I listen to her daughters’ dazzling Dallas lives,
she skim reads my news like a local paper,
then riffs on her past until suddenly the electric shock
of her casual your mother…
Thirty years before,
when uncle unilaterally decided
he’d married the wrong sister,
civil war in my family; grandmother and aunt
bombarding mum’s friends with telephone salvos
until I don’t want to be involved any more ,
despite mother’s boozy begging calls.
So I am on a bed of
as she fondly recounts how mother would nurse
their Chihuahua on her lap all afternoon,
and when she departed,
the little dog smelt foppishly of Chanel no 5 .
Strolling into the
gents laughter tattooed on his lips,
he interrupts two skulking men
who leer over shoulders to appraise the boy’s threat.
selects the furthest urinal.
But, they see his head bent as if in prayer ,
smell his sweat,
hear his tachycardia and
slide either side of him.
pizza face, porker;
tearing himself from the paralysis of their venom words
he stumbles out the door,
stutters excuses to his pals of ‘feeling unwell’,
then sits in a lay by sobbing.
Twenty years on ,
car crash repulse -attract at
every mirror that throws him a guinea pig club face .
Deep in work , first dates,
a back ground voice taunts ‘ You are grotesque’.
Despite holding our
own wasps’ nest pasts,
we stare, through mizzled eyes at
this man who could adorn an aftershave advert.