I am at a thing. It is my thing, contributing to the thing of others, who I do not know.
A writing centre, the middle of nowhere, winter. You know the kind of thing.
Youths will be there. The organiser has prepared me on the phone: ‘I’d keep it on the light side if I were you.’
I arrive at the centre in time to meet the other writers. A novelist of a certain age greets me with a firm handshake and the widest of smiles. ‘Wine?’ she says.
The poet, her colleague, enters late. He sits down gruffly next to me, without introducing himself. Now I know who he is.
While we eat he feeds me titbits of information from the side of his mouth. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ he says. ‘I’ve had to resort to workshop exercises. And attend every workshop.’
There is merry, sweary shouting from the end of the table. Large amounts of food have been left on the sides of plates. Someone has opened some crisps.
Ever the teacher, I say ‘What did you expect? You have to adjust.’
He looks at me flatly, the merest hint of pity creeping round the edges of his mouth.
An hour later I begin my reading. I do what I have been told and keep it light. I read list poems, poems about my babies, poems about moving house.
The poet sits at the far end of the room, eyes level with mine, boring into me without expression. The novelist surrounds herself with youths. She nods, smiles and makes notes.
It is going spectacularly badly, which is better than I predicted.
I make the error (it isn’t one) of reading a poem about football. ‘That’s a shit poem,’ says one of the youths. I ask him why. ‘Chelsea are shit, right? If it’d been about Liverpool it would’ve been good.’
There is nodding and clamour of agreement.
I catch two eyes, a cricket pitch away, motionless, above a motionless mouth. Arms fold silently across a chest.
The novelist leans forward, breezily. ‘But Anthony, what I think you are doing is saying ordinary things can be part of poetry. Would anyone else like to comment?’
‘It’s still a shit poem.’
‘Yeah, shit, right.’
I notice something reptilian in his eyes, beautiful in their way, sizing up the quarry, the prey.
‘I think that’s very unfair on Anthony, who’s come all this way-‘
‘No, it’s fine. It’s good to get a reaction.’
I look into his eyes, beaming my widest smile.
‘I’ll read one more to finish, shall I?’
‘That would be lovely, Anthony, thank you.’
When I finish the poem, a voice says: ‘That wasn’t so shit cos it didn’t have Chelsea in it.’
‘Shall we thank Anthony for coming all this way?’ says the novelist. She begins clapping. Two of the children join her.
His eyes have not left me; his mouth is a burnt horizon. He rises to leave.
‘Thank you, Anthony, thank you,’ says the novelist, her head ducking between the marching bodies.
A hand clamps on my shoulder. The organiser, beaming his best smile. ‘Wine?’ he says.