V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





One minute it's hopscotch in bare feet, 
next you're four foot up in a sedan in case 

your pink stockings get dirty.  No one 
prepared me for marriage.  Me and Alba 

were the wild girls of Londinium, 
sought to discover the secrets 

of its hidden hearts, still too young 
to withhold more than we revealed, 

to join this merry cast of actors. 
She was like a rag doll who'd lost its stuffing: 

spiky brown hair kept short 'cos of nits; 
everyone said she was either anorexic 

or had worms, but Alba was so busy 
chasing the dulcis vita that she just burnt 

everything she ate before it turned to fat. 
She'd drag me out on dangerous escapades, 

we were partners in crime, banditos, renegades 
she said there was more to life 

than playing with friggin' dolls, like causing 
trouble and discovering what grown-ups 

did in private without getting caught. 
We were gonna steal from the rich, 

give to the poor, keep seventy-five per cent 
for ourselves and live in one of them mansions 

with a thousand slaves feeding us cakes, 
all day every day, but until such time . . . Her dad

owned the butcher's next door but one. 
Mine couldn't care less what I did. 

His precious Catullus got the abacus and wax, 
I got the sewing kit and tweezers. 

He was even bought a ponytail for his curly 
little head, so's he fitted in at school 

with all those trendy Roman kids. 
Bless his sockless feet.  Imagine.

Some days we'd tour the tenements 
of Aldersgate.  He'd trail behind 

like a giant sloth, his big muddy eyes 
under sleepy hoods (just like his father's), 

and plead with us to slow down; 
I'd tell him to futuo-off, you little runt,

leaving him behind as we raced towards 
the slums, swarming with immigrants, 

freed slaves and factory workers (usual suspects). 
We'd play Knock-Down-Ginger, throw stones, 

break windows, then leg-it down an alley 
outa-sight, arrive home breathless 

and itching with flea bites and jigger-foot. 
What with the alfresco sewerage running 

between paving stones, now 
in my neighbourhood, summer evenings 

were spiced, trout fried on stalls, fresh 
out of the Thames, you could eat air 

or run home for supper in the back-a-yard 
Dad called an atrium.  That's 

if the rush-hour traffic allowed, carts 
clogged up the main drag to the Forum, unloading 

produce from up-country or abroad. 
Sometimes, I'd hear a solitary flute through an open 

window, and stop . . . . . . . . . . breathing. 
Later we'd sneak out for the vicarious thrill 

of the carnal experience.  Like two toms, 
we'd prowl the darkened alleys, our noses 

sniffing out the devastating odour of sex. 
Peeping through candle-lit shutters, 

we were amazed at the adult need to strip off 
and stick things in each other. 

Men and women, women and women, 
men and men, multiples of all sorts 

groaning in pain.  Absolutely fascinatio! 
And then we encountered death, 

Luca Africanus, the baker of Fenchurch. 
I was the daughter he never had, he said 

(though his eyes spelt wife),
gave us fresh bread dipped in honey. 

Our thanks?  To raid his store one night, 
find his great, black, rigor mortis self 

in a cloud of flour, two burnt buns for cheeks, 
too much yeast in his bowels, emptied 

on the floor.  That stopped our missions, 
for a while.  Some nights we'd go to the river, 

sit on the beach, look out towards 
the marshy islands of Southwark, 

and beyond to the jungle that was Britannia, 
teeming with spirits and untamed humans. 

We'd try to imagine the world beyond the city, 
that country a lifetime away that Mum 

called home and Dad called prison; 
the city of Roma which everyone 

went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis. 
We'd talk about the off-duty soldiers 

who loitered in our town, everywhere, 
they were everywhere, watching for lumps 

on our chests, to see if our hips grew away 
from our waists, always picking me out, 

plucking at me in the market, 
Is our little aubergine ready?

"No, I'm not, you stinking pervs," I'd growl, 
skedaddling hotfoot out of their reach. 

Sometimes we'd hear grunting 
on the beach and imagine some illicit 

extramarital action was in progress, 
we'd call out in our deepest, gruffest voices, 

Hey, polizia! and rock with laughter 
'cos we'd interrupted their flipping coitus, 

we'd hear them tripping over themselves 
as they scuffled off and then everything 

changed, I got engaged.  I wasn't allowed 
out no more, I had to act ladylike 

and Alba said it wouldn't be the same 
once I'd been elevated.

© by Bernardine Evaristo


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