This story was first published in Issue 65 of Cambrensis, Short Story Wales. Sadly, the magazine was discontinued upon the death of its founder and editor in Summer 2006:
“And how are you today, Peter? Hard to believe that it’s our fifth session already. Have you had a good week?”
Carol holds herself between me and the door, pushing her face close to mine.
“Yes, fine thank you, Carol.”
She makes me nervous when she gets this close to me in public. I’m not sure I even like her but, somehow, she seems to think we connected at the first session. Now, every Tuesday, she stalks me like a disciple, nodding while I speak, flashing her eyes at me as if we enjoy private jokes, and occasionally winking. It would be flattering, if I weren’t her counsellor. It might be an ego boost, if the others weren’t finding it so amusing. I know they are just relieved that she hasn’t picked them out for special attention. It is all they can do to attend the alternative therapy programme I run for addicts and obsessive personalities.
I come to my classroom, Room 5, where it says ‘Will to Win Workshop’ on the door. Underneath in tiny neat block capitals, someone has written ‘Obsessional Sin Confessional’. I recognise it as Michael’s tidy script and smile. He might well turn out to be my star pupil today, not that he knows what I have planned. I am going to try poetry on them.
A couple of the patients are pacing the room when we enter. I stride forward, trying to appear confident. Carol and I bump against each other and the doorframe. She giggles and nudges me.
“Careful, Peter,” she says. “People will talk.”
She pushes herself forward into the room.
“Hello Michael. Hello Reuben. How have you both been?”
The two men look at her and say nothing.
“Fine,” she continues. “Don’t say a word. I know you want me really. Oh, hi, you two.”
Steph slopes into the room, looking at her feet, her right hand clutching her left arm, scratching furiously. Behind her is Tina, slapping her jaws together round a sometimes-visible greying piece of chewing gum.
“Okay,” I say. “I think we’re all here. Shall we make a start? Could you all pull up a chair and form a semi-circle in front of me?”
While everyone decides which chair they want to fetch and who wants to do it first, I look anxiously at the door. My guest speaker was supposed to be here ten minutes ago, so that I could prep her. No sign of her. I hope she’s coming. A blur of purple cheesecloth passes the door and I leap up, anxious not to let her slip away. I am sure it is her.
“Miss Cadenza. We’re in here,” I call to her swaying purple backside, which stops.
“Oh, call me Poesie, please. Miss Cadenza is too, too formal. Lovely to meet you at last Peter.”
She holds out a puffy arm wrapped in turquoise and silver bangles like a plaster cast. I quickly shake her sweaty hand and lead her in by the elbow to meet the group.
“Okay, everyone, welcome to the fifth ‘Will to Win Workshop’, where we’re working to help you overcome your addictions and obsessions. Say hello to our guest this afternoon, Miss Poesie Cadenza. As some of you may know, Poesie is a local poet and she has very kindly offered to come here today and talk to us.”
“Hello, Miss Cadenza,” they mumble.
“Yes, well, perhaps we can all introduce ourselves. Carol, would you like to start?”
“Love to, Peter, love to. Well, hello everyone. My name’s Carol and I just can’t get enough of …. sex. Not that I have a problem. I mean, I’m just a healthy, young woman.”
“Thank you, Carol. Now, tell me, what did we agree in Week One?”
“Too much of anything is unhealthy, Peter.”
“That’s right, Carol. Now, Michael, how about you?”
“Yeah, hi there, Michael’s the name,” he says, leaning across to Poesie and plucking a loose, long red hair from her skirt. “I’m here because I believe that cleanliness is above godliness. I’m a dust-busting, bleach-toting tidiness junkie and I have problems being in non-sterile environments like this classroom. It’s very unhygenic.”
“Freak! My name’s Steph and I’m the only real junkie in this room.”
Steph sits back, slipping her right hand inside the left sleeve of her jumper. I don’t think she realises anymore that she’s scratching herself.
Reuben glares at me. He is a large, muscular man, who always wears t-shirts at least one, if not two, sizes too small. The white one he is wearing today strains against his muscles, as he makes a move to get up.
“My name is Reuben and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hello Reuben,” say the others in unison.
Reuben sits back down.
Tina is still chewing her gum. I motion at her to take it out and she does, chomping noisily. She holds her gum out in front of her between her thumb and forefinger.
“I’m Tina and I have a compulsive eating disorder. I chew gum to help me not to eat – six packs a day, eight at the weekends.”
“Right, thank you everyone. Now, Poesie is going to recite a sample of her work. I’d like you to listen and afterwards we can discuss your response to it. Do you remember me suggesting that you try and write down how you are feeling, to help you work through your problems to overcome them? Well, with Poesie’s kind help today, we’re going to try and do just that and write some poetry of our own. I think you’ll find it a terrific medium in which to express your emotions.”
Reuben stands up again.
The group automatically chimes, “Hello Reuben.”
“Look, Peter, I’m not a blooming poof. You can’t make me write poetry with the purple fairy here. You’re supposed to be helping me stay on track, not drive me back to drink. Everyone knows poets are boozers – look at that Dylan Thomas bloke. He needed his own brewery, he did.”
“Reuben, I really think you need to apologise to Miss Cadenza.”
“No, really, not a problem,” she says, while a strawberry rash creeps up her throat.
“Reuben, please sit down. Writing or reading poetry alone won’t make you a homosexual or a drunk. Now, perhaps we can hear a few lines of Poesie’s work?”
Reuben snorts, crossing his arms and I think I hear his t-shirt groan with the strain.
Poesie’s voice is light and I briefly think Reuben might have been right in thinking her a purple fairy. She chirrups her way through a few lines,
“You wake up filled with dread.
There seems no reason for it.
…. Where is it coming from, this echo,
this huge No that surrounds you,
silent as the folds of the yellow
Carol is the first to speak.
“I so know that feeling, I know exactly how empty she is feeling. I hate it when I wake up in the morning and they’re already gone. Men don’t understand that women like to be held, do they? As soon as they’ve had their bit, they just disappear as fast as they can out of the door. Am I right?”
She looks at Poesie, who is sitting with her eyes closed, smiling to herself.
Reuben does not wait for her answer.
“She’s not waking up without a man at all, you dozy mare. You’ve got it all wrong. She’s waking up with a hangover, knowing there’s no more booze in the house. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Poesie still has her eyes closed but she has stopped smiling. Blinking, she takes a while to focus on us and seems surprised to find an audience.
“Sorry, I just find sharing my poetry extremely emotional, draining. I have to rest a little afterwards, that’s all. I’m back with you now. What was the question?”
Michael picks another long red hair from her skirt and places it in the wastepaper bin beside him.
“Are the folds of curtain regular or irregular?” he says.
Poesie looks confused by the question.
“Has she ironed the curtains?”
Michael’s eyes are gleaming and his cheeks are an excited pink, his mouth open like a baby bird waiting to be fed.
“I … I don’t know. I think they’re just hanging there, in folds, like … um … like curtains.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. But what about the yellow? Yellow curtains. Not a very practical colour, now is it? Shows the slightest bit of dust or dirt. Are they peanut butter or daffodil yellow? Or maybe buttercup yellow?”
Poesie looks at me and then back at Michael.
“Um … Daffodil?”
“Don’t you know? Why don’t you know? It’s important. How can I be expected to like your poem, if I don’t know where the dust and dirt lurks? I need to know where it is, where it hides, waiting, waiting to jump on you and get under your skin and itch you to the point of distraction. Don’t you understand? It’s maddening, this not knowing.”
He is scratching himself. Steph sits two away from him, scratching her right arm now, still watching her feet.
I want to engage her, bring her into the conversation.
“My echo doesn’t say No,” she whispers. “It pleads with me. Does it more and more often. I used to be able to cope but I can’t now. It’s not happy for as long as it used to be. I want it to stop but it doesn’t let me rest. I’m tired. I wake up filled with dread. That’s worse than waking up alone. I would give anything to wake up on my own. I’d like it to be just me and yellow curtains, even if it’s only the one time.”
Steph looks at Carol while she is talking. She doesn’t usually speak for so long and I know this is her lot for the session. Her head bends forward and she is watching her feet again.
Tina is the only one of the group yet to say anything. I look at her and notice she is no longer chewing. Her mouth is open, but empty, and she is staring at Poesie, whose rash is flushing a deep raspberry and has now reached her jawline.
“Tell us what, Tina?”
“She knows what I mean,” she says. “Go on, tell them.”
I don’t feel that the session is working out exactly how I had hoped and I am embarrassed for our guest. But Poesie is looking at Tina, blinking, her barely-seen eyelashes working hard.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, dear.”
She is smiling at Tina, head tilted to her left, palms upturned in her lap.
“Don’t any of you morons know?”
Tina looks at each of us in turn. When she comes to me, she juts her chin forward, staring hard.
“Call yourself a poetry lover!”
I can feel heat rising in my cheeks. I am under attack too.
“I like to think I know my poetry fai …”
Tina doesn’t let me finish, groaning, rolling her eyes.
“She’s a phoney, a fraud. It’s not her poem. She didn’t write it. It’s called ‘Up’ and she’s, shall we say, ‘borrowed’ it from the Canadian writer and poet, Margaret Atwood.”
“I have most certainly not done anything of the kind!”
Poesie is so red, she’s coming to the boil. There are slug-like tracks of sweat on her forehead and she is wringing her hands together.
“If anything, she .. she … she borrowed it … from me!”
I think Tina may be on to something.
“Oh come on, is it your poem or not?”
The class leans forward. They have all stolen something in the past to feed their demons. They recognise a fellow sufferer.
“I … I think I gave it to her.”
Tina is half-standing, half-sitting, ready to pounce.
“No, you didn’t, you liar. God, you need this class as much, if not more than, the rest of us.”
“You’re being quite mean. I’m getting flustered. I shan’t be able to write for weeks.”
Tina looks at her and laughs.
“You’re no more a poet than I am! Come on, then, give us an original Poesie Cadenza, if that is even your real name.”
“I .. oh, vicious, vicious, I can’t I tell you .. oh! horrible.”
Poesie crunches up her eyes and cries, her mouth wide open, gasping and panting.
Tina crosses the room, motions for Michael to move out of his chair, and sits beside her, holding her hands and stroking them.
“Come on, tell us why you’re really here. Tell us the truth.”
Poesie looks up at her, snorting heavily.
“But I can’t … ” she wails. “I can’t do that! I didn’t mean to do any harm. I saw the hospital’s advert for a poet to speak on this course and I thought, how lovely, they’re looking for me. I’m a poet. They’re asking me to join them. When Peter called out to me in the corridor, he thought I was Miss Cadenza, so I thought, why not? I can be Miss Cadenza, so I am, I mean, was.”
My head is spinning with all this.
“I thought you were Miss Cadenza,” I say, “because that’s who you told me you were on the telephone. Why would I think it was anything else? So what is your name?”
She stops crying and beams at me.
Tina presses her hand hard.
“No,” she says. “Your real name.”
“Oh, now let me think. It’s … it’s Clarissa. Yes, that’s right. Clarissa.”
“Hello Clarissa”, says the group.
She smiles and says, “Hello.”
“Well, I think that’s enough for today’s session. Clarissa, if you’d like to stay behind, I can get you registered for the programme.”
“Don’t you want me to stay behind too?”
It is Carol, standing by my side, leaning into me.
“No, no thank you, Carol, really you can go home.”
I follow Tina to the side of the room and wait while she stacks her chair away.
“So how long have you been a Margaret Atwood fan then, Tina?”
She looks at me and laughs.
“Oh, I think, ever since the first year of my eating disorder. I suppose you could say that it all started with her book, ‘The Edible Woman’. I thought it was written for me – and then, of course, being a compulsive, I just had to read everything else she’s ever written!”