Arriving from elsewhere, a merchant grew wealthy
in the market at Izmir. Not without rivals, he soon
became known as The Democrat for the breadth of his produce:
mollusc and crab, clawed creatures from far-off salt water.
Though stories abounded as to his wives, their beauty and number
few claimed to have seen them, none could verify details.
Every night after closing his stall, people told, he’d vanish
down the maze of high alleys where no sun or moonlight
could penetrate, pass through a heavy locked door and into
a courtyard of fig trees and roses before entering the house.
Reports spread that on Mondays he’d call out ‘Asifa?’
(who lived on her nerves), another day ‘Fatima?’ (whose eyes
were a lynx’s on fire), on others to ‘Mina?’, ‘Melika?’,
‘Cherifa?’ – and how only silence replied. But when,
at the urging of mullahs, the police at last knocked
at his gate, none could explain how they found
not a trace, not their scent nor the qualities and faults
only he had ascribed to them; and never, deep as they dug,
the fine loam of ash and crushed bone that in tales
such as this always nurture such bountiful gardens.
We'd fooled them, turned the odds on their head—
pushing out of the final exam, that's how it felt
two-thousand days, now those sacrosanct hours
of madness and mayhem were ours—
that long moonless night like a blessing,
taking us under its wing
as we stole up the clocktower, hoisted the effigy,
dismantled the gamesmaster's Mini
reassembled it inside the chapel,
strung tampons from rafters like miniature candles
3am, made that final planned charge down the valley—
past classrooms, goalposts, throwing off clothes all the way—
scaling the fence to the pool,
you ahead, rushing straight for the springboard, kicking off shoes—
twenty years on I can see it, that treacherous glisten
as I'm jolted awake, still lost for a reason
as you call back we made it!
as I catch the pale flash of your feet
why they drained out the water that same afternoon,
our last day of school.
It was all I saw her drink—the only one
she wanted, as she wanted him. Through the din,
the ringing tills, working there beside him you could sense
his focus on the door. Each time she floated in
(a year back, give or take) he'd have the speedrail
and the sweet-talk primed, catch her eye
and draw her to the bar. She'd lean in close and laugh—
then watch him work that shaker for his very life.
Maya. And who could argue? Picasso-curved,
a mane of pitch, anthropology at LSE. A babe.
He had her number that first night—and she had his.
Ah, my Ben, she'd coo, mi toro cariñoso—in such a way
I shivered even then. Recalled the only bullfight
I have seen: Majorca, long ago, a cheap and grisly thrill—
the fooling and the toying, the ribboned darts, the sword
secreted in the swirl of cape and cheers before the kill
while he, of course, just strutted, centre-stage, his grin
a counter wide. Wouldn't hear a word against, even had I
guts to try. She's ... I can't tell you, man (by now he'd
clock in hazy, late, a shadow) and I thought that's fine—
I'd heard already what her tongue could do, how Toledo
was the place, why she worshipped Hemingway. Bit my lip
as he grew pale, lost touch and weight, left the rest of us
to field each slip of change, forgotten order, half-arsed shift.
One night she simply wasn't there. Smile and swagger gone,
from then he never spoke of her. I couldn't leave it any more:
our free day, Monday, grabbed some beer and takeaway—
drove over to his flat, walked in the open door
and there he was, man of action—slumped out in a chair,
book upon his chest, ringed by empties. Like a cape
just whipped aside, the poster of the matador had gone—
its outline left in dust, ripped plaster, Sellotape—
the bookshelves, too, were bare, the failing light outside
leaching each last drop of colour from the room.
I went through to the kitchen, set to on the dishes. Let him sleep,
that paper shield across his chest. Death in the Afternoon.
We head up to the park—start winging it
out there. The arm's a little rusty, the legs
aren't so hot, and after two or three sprints
to the treeline my lungs wheeze and steam
like out-of-shape kettles, our backs are glowing
and slicked in the twilight. The curve, the hang
of that thing when you nail it—it's beautiful,
spinning off through the dusk, hurtling in
thwack to my palm as I'm running on
memories and sadness and something
like love—love of you, you one crazy mother,
whooping on, silhouette-sharp in the fireball.
You were there when not many were;
pulled me through. Now, five blocks to the bar,
we take them real slow, loping and groaning,
back to the neon. Ease to the counter, watch a guy
pull the beer. Man! you say beaming
and reach for your glass. Man, did we burn it!
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