From the archives: Should I have heard of you?

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‘We are at a party that doesn’t love us’ – Tomas Tranströmer

 

We are at a thing. Not a poetry thing, a thing in someone’s house. Glasses are being chinked, light in them, light glinting from the poured liquids within. Laughter. Music in another room. The gang.

We edge in, as you do. Familiar faces greet us, the first hellos for months in some cases. The kisses which follow. More pouring. It is midsummer.

Some of the faces belong to strangers. Which is to say, we know who they are, but they do not know us. Introductions follow. Pouring. Light. A gap in the music.

People are gathered around one of the strangers, people we know. We edge further. The people we know. Laughter. But I am not paying attention. I am at the back of the class, scribbling on a blank sheet some words, trying to connect them with the fascinating nothing going on outside the window.

From three hundred yards two feet away I hear a person I know say the words I dread. ‘… a poet.’

At the back of the class I do not know and do not know the squared root of the subjunctive at Flodden Field. I opt for honesty: ‘I don’t know, Sir.’

Idiot.

And then these words, twice as dreadful: ‘Should I have heard of you?’ Quickly spoken, no sooner thought than uttered. A woman. She has cascading hair, lots of it, artfully arranged to appear she has made no effort. Her clothes likewise. Large sections of her bosom are visible. She leans over to grab some nuts. A tilt of the head, the nuts thrown to the back of the throat, where they are joined by a slurp.

‘What are you, Wilson?’

‘An idiot, Sir.’

‘An idiot. Fifty times before lunch, on my desk.’

Sound has gone missing in the day. I try to think of Churchill, of Oscar Wilde, what they would have said. I try not to think of bosoms. The class roars with laughter. Permission having been granted by the teacher, a chant of ‘Iddy-ott, Iddy-ott’ goes up. He raises a hand and it stops.

For two hours a millisecond I consider my response. I choose honesty. Always the best. (Another gap in the music. Laughter).

The eyes of the woman, the slurp-crunch now nearing its conclusion, reptilian. But as I make my reply, my considered and witty riposte, she turns her head and begins talking to her friend.

I have already said to her ‘Of course’, but she is gone, immersed in a conversation about house prices.

At break time a boy comes up to me and asks to swap my conker with him. I ask him what I get in return. He looks over my shoulder, then into my eyes.

‘You can join my game. No one else is going to ask you.’ He starts to walk away. ‘It’s your choice,’ he says, without looking back.

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