by Andrew Lee-Hart
Hannah had not wanted to embarrass her grandson Luke; she had chosen her clothes with care rather than her usual practice of throwing on the nearest to hand, she had spent almost half an hour trying to control her hair and she had even sprayed on a little of the perfume that she had been given for her birthday, so that when she looked in the mirror she looked like a respectable elderly lady who nobody would need be ashamed of. But as the two of them walked to the university the grey rain and strong wind left her hair straggly and it blew into her face, and then when, hurrying to keep up with Luke, she stood in a puddle and immediately felt the cold water go through her shoes and saturate her stockings, so that by the time they reached the auditorium she was dishevelled and very uncomfortable.
Luke had been visiting his grandmother one evening after school when he mentioned that the poet Nigel Hughes was coming to speak at the university.
You have spoken about him, haven't you, dont you like his poems, or met him once or something?
He was eager to leave, she could tell, sent over by his mother to check on her, as she was too busy with her social work and various hobbies to bother. Hannah knew he was trying to make conversation and show willing before he was free to go home to his proper life, his duty done.
I didnt just meet him, I knew him Hannah told him, he wrote a poem about me, many years ago, when I was all bohemian and lived in France. I knew so many poets then and artists, I even met Picasso and Samuel Beckett.
Oh said Luke, I think I have heard of Picasso, but not the other one.
This was not the first time that she had told her family about her bohemian past, in fact in recent years such reminiscences had become more and more common as she discovered she had little else to talk about, and she longed to make an impression on her bored relatives, keeping them captive with her stories from the part, even exaggerating to keep them interested, it was as if she could not help herself, felt compelled to keep on talking and try to amuse and entertain anyone who visited her.
Apparently, Luke was studying Nigel Hughes for his A Levels and so was going to hear him speak.
I might go myself ventured his grandmother, it would be interesting to see him and maybe catch up with an old friend.
You can come with me if you like Luke eventually told her.
Are you sure you don't mind?
He shook his head, and smiled at her, reminding Hannah, for a brief moment, of the little boy that he once was.
They sat in the hall; a large building which was part of the original university where exams were taken and then, a few weeks later, degrees handed out. They were early, Luke having given them plenty of time for his doddering old grandmother. Even though the hall was almost empty they sat near the back, Luke presumably wanting to avoid being seen by any of his classmates. Hannah felt her feet squelch and make a slight farting sound as they sat down, and she hoped Luke realised it was her shoes, after this she tried to keep her feet still to avoid any other strange noises. Her jacket too was wet and she was sure that it smelt of damp and of cooking from the kitchen, she wished she had taken it off as the hall was warm and she was starting to sweat, but she did not want to bother Luke with standing up and making a show of them so she stayed still and felt the drip of either perspiration or rain trickle down her back.
So he wrote a poem about you?
Yes, he was a friend and one day he gave me this poem Cleopatra and said it was about me.
Other people were chatting whilst the rest of the audience began to traipse in the hall, so that it was soon almost half full, not a bad number for a poet, albeit one who regularly appeared on television.
Oh Cleopatra, that is one of the ones we studied, I didnt know it was about you. It is quite erotic, well that is what our teacher said.
He looked at her with interest for a moment, but there was doubt in his face.
Yes, I was young and beautiful, it was a long time ago. I was in Paris, I had gone with a friend, and I met Nigel in a cafe.
She had told him all this before, but now he seemed at least a little bit interested and less self-conscious about being with her.
They stopped talking then because a man came onto the stage and introduced himself as Doctor something or other from the English department and he thanked them all for coming on such a rainy evening, and how it was his great pleasure to introduce the well-known poet and of course television presenter Nigel Hughes, and then, amidst loud applause, the poet himself strode onto the stage and gave a modest little bow and took over proceedings.
Hannahs first thought was that he had shrunk, and that he was old, but then he must be in his early seventies as he had been about her age when they met, and actually he had aged better than she had, truth to tell she would not have recognised him as he was nothing like the thin, pale young man she remembered. Today he was wearing an expensive looking suit but no tie and there was a Vote Labour badge ostentatiously displayed on his lapel even though there was no election due as far as she was aware. He smiled at them all, and for a moment she gazed at those brown eyes and remembered him telling her that she was beautiful, and he had gazed at her in awe and lust, and then she wished that she could travel back in time to Paris, when life was all possibilities and she was beautiful and writers would worship her body and describe it in their poetry.
There were books on the table in front of him, and he picked one up and started to read from it; his voice was more London than she remembered, he had sounded quite posh and well-spoken when she had known him, but now there were the artfully dropped aitches and the flat vowels, as if he was originally from a Council House in the East End of London, which she knew for certain that he wasnt. She lost track of the poem pretty quickly, she supposed that he read well, but perhaps she was tired and nervous, and her thoughts quickly wandered, and being so far from the front it was a little difficult to hear.
He finished to handsome applause and he smiled before finding another poem, the page marked by a slip of paper which he then put in his jacket pocket.
As you may know I have a lot to do with rights of Palestinians under the oppressive Israeli government, and here is a poem I wrote about it, sorry if it is a bit political and he smirked slightly as he started to read again. She stiffened into an instinctive defensive pose as he recited a list of Israeli atrocities in rhyming couplets.
I love the fact that you are Jewish Nigel had told her, as they sat drunkenly together in the café, it was getting dark and all their friends had gone home.
I would have gone over and fought, I really thought about it, but by the time I was ready, the war was over and thank God you won.
She smiled at him, he looked beautiful with his pale skin and curly hair, and especially surrounded by the smell of French tobacco and the sound of garrulous Parisians, and although she could not imagine him with a rifle in his hand she knew that he meant well and was grateful.
Hannah had come to Paris with Jonathan, her gentile lover, he wanted to paint, and he did have some talent and so she, much to her parents dismay, had quit her excellent job with Boots the Chemist and joined him, and they settled down in a small flat. But almost immediately his father became ill and he fled back to Basingstoke whilst, much to his hurt, she stayed behind thinking that she would never get the chance to live such a life again, and of course she was right. She knew that he wouldn't come back, that he had been looking for an excuse to retreat in a dignified manner, and she had enough money for the time being after having worked for a couple of years, and been given some by her parents, despite their disapproval. Hopefully she would start to make money herself, but she was not sure how, but she had some time to enjoy herself and meet people. Unlike Jonathan, her French was excellent, and she realised that she was actually self-sufficient and enjoyed being so.
She had gradually become aware of Nigel over a few days; he hung about various cafes on the left-bank, and people muttered that he was a poet and that his parents were rich. She had made friends with a French woman Annabelle who was about her age and a student at the Sorbonne, and to save money Annabelle had moved into her flat, it was she who had suggested Hannah go over and talk to the smartly dressed English man who was trying to make friends and be accepted by the patrons of the small café where they were all sat.
He is not bad looking she had murmured, and he looks so lost...
Thus, Hannah, feeling a little sorry for him and encouraged by her friend, had gone over to speak to this young Englishman, and they had stayed together until the café was closed for the night and everyone, including Annabelle, had long gone. And then they chatted on a bench in the gloom and then when the cold got too much for them, and without a question being asked, she walked back to his flat and into his bed.
She woke the following morning, the sheets white but damp, whilst outside it looked dark and wet, but she felt happy, this was the life she wanted, and to make the scene complete there was Hugh naked, writing at his desk, the pencil making a slight scratching noise. He looked up and saw that she was watching him.
This is for you he told her, and he carried on scribbling, every so often reading a bit out to her, whilst she sat and listened. And then he had gone out and bought some bread and they ate it naked, imagining that nobody had ever done such a thing before.
And a few days later he handed it to her, a piece of rather lovely writing paper, with the words Cleopatra at the top. Hot from the Middle East sun it began, and it described every part of her, as if she was a beautiful Queen from far away, where your ancestors built their temples and worshipped their God.
He had beautiful handwriting, neat and clear, but with flourishes, it showed an inner confidence that she had not noticed before.
Sorry it took so long, I wanted to get it right.
Nobody has ever written me a poem before she told him, and kissed him, and then they went back to her flat and made love, and afterwards he read it out loud for her, and then she read it back to him and when she had finished she clutched it tightly to her breast, feeling a happiness inside her which might kill her if she could not find a way of releasing it.
She kept the poem safe, even when, without warning, and without asking her to go with him, Hugh left her and Paris for the South of France. And she kept it with her, when after a short time teaching English to bored housewives and businessmen she decided to head back to England and then to marry an old school friend, who was from her own people and who was kind, and they had two children, Rebecca and Jane (later Lukes mother). The handwritten poem stayed in a cardboard box as her children got older and had children of their own, and then her husband died, and she became a rather scruffy old woman who repeated herself, and often wished her life would just end without pain or fuss.
It must have been ten years after she returned to England, when Rebecca and Jane were still little, that looking through the poetry section of a bookshop for a present for a friend, she had seen a volume of poems by Nigel Hughes, Echoes of Europe and elsewhere and there was the poem Cleopatra, no dedication, but it was the poem that he had written for her, he had changed it slightly, but this was the poem that they had both recited lying naked together in bed. She had bought the volume, resisting the temptation to tell the bookseller all about it, nor did she tell her husband why it was special, just saying that she enjoyed the writing. Over the years she occasionally dipped into the other poems, but it was to Cleopatra she returned, and felt warm and happy when she read the lyrical words all about her, and often clutched the book to herself and smiled.
He looked around at his audience with a smile, he clearly felt comfortable now. There were several books on the table in front of him and he picked up another one and found his place
And now an old favourite from my misspent youth, and then he started to recite it.
Hot from the Middle East Sun/ Pure skin as white as an almond .
There was a pleasured sigh from the audience who clearly knew the poem well, and were happy to hear it read by the author, whilst Nigel barely needed to look at the book as he recited the words that were so familiar.
As he finished there was a happy clapping of hands, with which Hannah joined, and she tried to catch the poets eye, and imagined that if he realised if it was her, the woman he had written the poem for there in the audience, and that perhaps he would invite her on stage and tell the audience how they had met, and she went slightly red in anticipation, even though she knew that it was unlikely. And then Luke turned slightly and smiled at her in a kindly way, realising how special it was for her.
Once the applause had settled down, Nigel looked down at the audience with another smirk.
I wrote that poem many years ago, fortunately my wife is not here, so I can tell you all about it.
He paused for the expected laughter.
When I was young I travelled through Europe with little more than pen and paper, and eventually I ended up in Rome where I met an Egyptian actress, I saw her sitting on the Spanish steps eating grapes and looking disdainfully about her, and she seemed so Queenly, if that is a word, and so I wrote this poem there and then, just describing what I saw. Fortunately, she did not leave whilst I was writing it, and then when I finished it I handed it to her, and she read it and it clearly met with her approval because she then invited me to her room.
He paused suggestively.
We stayed in Rome for a month living off oranges and sex before she went onto greater things, and I, well here I am reading to you beautiful people.
The audience chuckled and he started flicking for another poem.
Hannah stood up, feeling ashamed and angry.
See you soon she whispered to Luke and hurriedly left the hall, as she did so, she heard a laugh behind her and suspected the Nigel had pulled a face at her retreating back. The evening was dry now as she made her way home, but she did not notice the weather or anything else. How could he take that one thing from her? She wondered if there had been an Egyptian actress on the Spanish Steps, and for a moment she actually felt jealous, and then calmed down and laughed out loud at how ridiculous she was being, and a couple glanced at her, just another mad old woman who shouldn't be allowed out, but her anger was still there and her humiliation, no doubt later Luke would tell his mother how his grandmother was a senile old woman, and had they thought of putting her in a home.
She vowed never to talk about it again, and when her daughter inevitably rang her next morning between clients, she would just say that she had been feeling a bit faint in the heat and wanted to get home, make light of the whole thing. In the future she would have to remember to talk of other things and more importantly listen to her daughters and grandchildren and taken an interest in their doings, rather than force her memories onto them. If nothing else, it was a lesson learned.
And when she got home she took the piece of paper from the drawer and read the words one more time, and perhaps for a moment she doubted whether he had written it for her, whether she had stayed in Paris at all, but rather had copied the poem in a moment of sadness and despair many years ago, to pretend that someone, once long ago had thought she was desirable and worth writing about. But then she held the stiff sheet of paper to her breast, and for a moment it didnt matter; she was young and beautiful once again, and somebody loved her.
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