Issue 25: Mark Russell
I’m buried up to my neck in the front garden. I’m facing away from the house but can move my head a little. The neighbours from three doors up appear, walking their dog down to the river. Oh, Bailey says, we didn’t see you there. We don’t need your permission, you know. I’m sure they do, but my mouth goes into spasm and the words won’t come. The dog starts sniffing around my face. It circles, as if it is going to pee. Bailey and her husband watch with impatience. He looks at his watch. Getting to the river is important to him. They argue. He tears off his clothes and slings them at me as if I’m an unopened washing basket. If my hands were free, I’d strangle that dog, I say. Bailey frowns and draws out her paring knife made of volcanic glass. My neck tightens. Her husband reveals himself to be wearing swimming trunks. I think they’re made of wool. They’re huge and baggy, sagging to his knees. He’s travelled all the way from the 1930s and doesn’t look in the least bit tired. Bailey cuts herself out of her clothes. She wears a knitted swimsuit, like a t-shirt with shorts and belt. It looks tight and more comfortable than his. They start to imitate models on the beach. I tell them I haven’t got my camera with me, but they go on striking poses. The dog, I say. Somebody deal with the dog. Bailey lifts her husband above her head in one long continuous motion. Now, she says. Now.
My shoulders ache. I’m hanging from a tree in the middle of the boys’ quadrangle. Your Song by Elton John seeps out of a classroom. It’s late: there are no pupils, but a few teachers are at their desks marking. The caretaker is picking up litter. He sniffs and lights a thin cigar. I can reach my blazer pocket. There are a few pages torn from an exercise book. Mrs Harrison has written a note at the bottom of my comprehension test. You have lost your comma, it says. The caretaker wipes a glass panel in the door of the Biology Lab. I ask him how many commas I’m supposed to have. He smokes a little more and tells me that he hates children who go to Grammar schools. Miss Atkinson comes out of the Woodwork room. You’ll hang there till morning, young man, she says. The tree is strong. I could hang here for years. Miss Atkinson says that when the Dutch Elm disease arrives, they’ll burn the whole school to the ground. Throw me a tomato sandwich, I say. But Miss Atkinson has only a chisel and tenon saw. The caretaker kneels before her. She drops to her knees and they embrace. Get out of here, I say. You’re not safe. They begin to roll in the grass that surrounds me like a green ocean.
Three small boys in shorts and cloth caps are kicking their heels on the corner of The Boulevard. The street is wide, its buildings made of limestone. What are those, they say, pointing to my hands. They are coins made of chocolate wrapped in gold-coloured tinfoil. Have you bought anything with them? I tell them the shopkeepers find the chocolate soapy in both taste and texture, and therefore dismiss their currency. The boys pause to think. They are sharp and clever little boys. Why don’t you trade them for government bonds? This is a reasonable, if unlikely proposal, and I pat their heads. They are too precious, I say. Despite they’re worthlessness? Because of their worthlessness. I don’t know why, but this response prompts them to draw nightsticks from behind their backs. I want to run, but two of them peel off from the other and surround me. I offer them a bribe in exchange for my freedom, but they slap the coins from my hand, and they scatter into the gutter. Ask for our homework, they say. Go on, ask us.
A police officer is taking my details at the front desk. He asks for a ring of posies, and I say does he mean a pocketful, because I have some pockets and they’re full of posies. He says nothing, but writes slowly in his ledger, lifts his head to stare at me for a moment, and then continues. A number of school children enter and take seats in the waiting room. The officer counts them, pointing the rubber end of his pencil at each in turn, whispering the numbers as he goes. Twenty-seven, he says. I nod in agreement. Write it down, he says, lending me his pencil. I write it on my arm. He asks me to empty my pockets. I haven’t as many posies as I bragged, but I give him all that I have. Is that everything, he says. I check again. There are some toffees in the inside pocket of my sou’wester. He snatches them and stuffs them all in his mouth. He rings a bell and four guards in riot gear enter. I start to protest. I ask for the toilet. I begin to rub off the number 27 from my arm. Put the children in the van, the officer says. The children are gathered roughly. They scream and cry. I go to help but the officer pulls me back by the hair. Let me go, I say. Let me go, fight like a man. The children and the guards are soon gone. It’s quiet and now I’m bald. You look better like that, says the officer. I try to hit him, but my hands are heavy and my arms don’t work. There is drool leaking from the side of the officer’s mouth. His face reddens. The sun goes down. The electricity blows with a fizz and a buzz and a bang and we are in darkness. He rubs my head. I like your head, he says. I ask for the toilet. I like your head, he says again.
It’s so early. Too early to be on the way to the retail shopping park. We’ve not seen another car for twenty-three miles. We’re nearly there. Some of the houses have been knocked down behind the new health centre. I wonder what they’re going to build. Somebody has seen the plans: it’s going to be a hotel. Mr Klepnik stops the car. He says we have to walk the rest of the way. But why, we say, we’re nearly there, you said so. Move, he says. I hadn’t noticed before: Mr Klepnik has a limp. It was blown off in the war, he says. Keep up. He can walk very fast. He takes us the back way, over garden walls. He rips sheets off clothes lines. I don’t know why he’s so angry. When we get to the thin slatted wooden fence between numbers 23 and 25, he smashes a hole through it with his false leg. Let’s rest, he says. It’s around the next corner, I say. He unclips his leg and swings it at my shins. He misses. Let’s rest. We hear sirens. Damn. Mr Klepnik unhooks his arms. Here, unscrew my head. I do. It rolls into a border of snowdrops. You’ll have to go on alone, he says. Don’t forget the saffron. I want to make Persian chicken tonight. I wipe away some soil from his mouth and prop up his head more comfortably. Go on, he says. And don’t worry. I trust you.
Mark Russell has published two full collections and five pamphlets, the latest being o (the book of gatherings) with Red Ceilings. He won the 2020 Magma Poetry Judge’s Prize, and his poems have appeared in Shearsman, The Manchester Review, Tears in the Fence, Adjacent Pineapple, The Fortnightly Review, Molly Bloom, and elsewhere.
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